The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Adverse catalysts of reform: English then, NDA now

Photo: Talismanian

By Arunoday Majumder

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has set up a committee to look into the verdict of the Supreme Court (SC) that has declared triple talaq illegal. The AIMPLB will decide whether to file a review petition based on the views of the experts brought together for deliberation. In August, 2017, the apex court had delivered a landmark judgment that made the execution of instant ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’ unlawful. With that, the SC provided another shot in the arm for the ‘emancipation’ of women in India that began decades ago.

The Bengal Sati Regulation (1829) was passed under the governor-generalship of William Bentinck. The logic of that almost 200-year-old decision reads thus: “… all classes of the people be secure in the observance of their religious usages, so long as that system can be adhered to without violation of the paramount dictates of justice and humanity …”

The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act (1856), formalised under the governor-generalship of James Dalhousie, was the next instance when the colonial state overruled another despicable custom. The 1856 Act notes: “… civil law administered by the Courts of Justice shall no longer prevent those Hindus who may be so minded from adopting a different custom, in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience … the marriage of Hindu widows will tend to the promotion of good morals and to the public welfare …”

Both codifications drew from (a) secularism – separation of governance and faith – and not multiculturalism with which the concept remains confused in India since independence; (b) the Constitution, amendable text for governance authored by mortals; (c) civil rights – equality of all humans before law; (d) gender equality – derived from the above three.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Iswarchandra Vidyasagar played the roles of agents provocateur of change in the 19th century. The Shah Banos and Shayara Banos have continued their reformist zeal in recent times. Like their august predecessors, the Banos have faced opposition. But, tragically, it has come not only from mosque men and their spokesmen – All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) – but also from the former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari. Here are his words:

Interviewer: So should the court step in?
Hamid Ansari: You don’t have to; the reform has to come from within the community.
Interviewer: Would it be wrong for the courts to step in?
Hamid Ansari: The courts can say that we don’t recognise it. That’s all.

First, the “from within the community” argument is a defensive one. It does not address the question which provoked the petition before the SC: should sufferers continue to wait for reform to dawn “from within the community”? The response of the former Vice President can be best excused as a no skin-in-the-game one. But what makes Ansari imagine the community only in terms of Islam? After all, the petitioners sought redress from the apex court as members “from within the community” of Indians and not just Muslims.

Second, now that the SC has said, “We don’t recognise it”, should it be “that’s all” as stated by the former chairman of the Rajya Sabha? Should the parliament not make prosecutable laws that will punish the practitioners of triple talaq? The danger of what may happen if the parliament remains inactive is out in the open. West Bengal Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind President and Trinamool Congress minister, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, has stated, “The verdict given by the Supreme Court is unconstitutional and we will not abide by it.”

Additionally, one of the petitioners in the triple talaq case, Ishrat Jahan, is battling social boycott and character assassination in West Bengal – the second most Muslim populated state in India. Must India wait for a secular sense to emerge “from within the community” and deny her constitutional guarantees? If yes, must India wait for the same to emerge “from within the community”, who follow Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and have run riot following his conviction in a case of rape?

Just few days ago, the secularati of India whole-heartedly welcomed the coup interview of Ansari to Rajya Sabha TV. Because the secularati is invested in what a commentator has summed as “… something that’s more rooted in desperation for virtue-signalling rather than fair scrutiny …,” it ignored the comments of Ansari on triple talaq. His comments are not only inimical to gender justice among Muslim women but also roadblocks to the rise of civil society among the community – a dire necessity which I have highlighted earlier. The minoritarian demand for special treatment is sure to ghettoise Muslims further. Erudite Ansari, the former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, should have sensed that.

It is unlikely that Narendra Modi will do to the Shayara Bano verdict what Rajiv Gandhi did to the Shah Bano judgment. In a blatant act of Muslim male appeasement, Gandhi passed the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce) Act, 1986 and overturned the SC judgment. Today again, despite a 2016 Calcutta High Court order, members of the ‘secular’ mahagathbandhan play to the Islamic gallery via a new politics of Durga Puja versus Muharram.

William Bentinck and James Dalhousie relied on the strong arm of the state and brought reforms among Hindus. Had they desisted from the hard line, the rise of a civil society among Hindus would have remained elusive. Yet their actions do not overlook the facts that Bentinck enacted the English Education Act (1835) which is inseparable from Thomas Macaulay’s snootiness and that Dalhousie ushered the infamous Doctrine of Lapse (1848). Also, few would contest that their well-intentioned measures for the natives were driven by a deep sense of ‘civilising mission’ and ‘white man’s burden’, which legitimized colonialism itself.

Secular students of history must evaluate Narendra Modi for what he does not but also for what he does. His government, like those before his, has done little to improve public healthcare and public education for children. His government has not done enough to rein in gau-raksha vigilantes and fatwa-happy imams, who have terrorised Indians.

But then Narendra Modi has led India from the front on many fronts, too. Under his prime ministry, India is unlikely to scuttle the chance of empowering a minority among the minority. A political environment in which mollycoddle policies to appease Muslims are done away with can ensure the rise of secular reformers like the triple talaq petitioners. The emergence of a civil society is likely to follow as in the case of Hindus some two hundred years back.

The future will reflect upon Narendra Modi’s tryst with India as a multi-dimensional ‘encounter’. Historiography, too, will not be able to escape it.

Bio:
Arunoday Majumder is Doctoral Candidate and Research Fellow at CSSS, JNU. Twitter: @Arunoday_MR

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Narrating Care: Disability and Interdependence in the Indian Context’, edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata, India and Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad, India.

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