Angiography

Criminalising instant triple talaq makes Muslim men second-class citizens

How can uttering a string of words that have no legal standing be a crime in the eyes of law?

 |  Angiography  |  9-minute read |   29-12-2017
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The Narendra Modi government’s criminalising of instant triple talaq - which has already been declared “unconstitutional and void” by the Supreme Court of India in August this year, thereby making the entire exercise of passing a bill needless and a grossly abusive overreaction - is about legalised loss of humanity. This is about packets of prejudice willed into law by a state that’s waging a long war on its minorities.

How can uttering a string of words that have no legal standing be a crime at all? How can the state punish you for saying something that has been invalidated by the highest court of law? You might as well as say abracadabra and be arrested for that. You might be, if you happen to be a Muslim man in Narendra Modi’s India.

Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad introduced the triple talaq bill, officially (and euphemistically) known as the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, in Lok Sabha yesterday, December 28, and the brute majority that the BJP-led NDA enjoys in the lower house, ensured that the bill be bulldozed through Parliament. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, perhaps the frankest handmaiden of the ruling party in the government that the Lok Sabha has ever seen, allowed a bill, that would throw an entire community into complete socioeconomic and political disarray, that would send ripples of disruptive dread in an already traumatised section of the society, ghettoise them in their own fear and anxiety further, to be sent for voting within barely a few hours of its introduction.

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That the drafting of the bill had been done in a sickening haste, without taking into confidence any of the stakeholders, whether it’s the Union ministry of women and child development, or even the petitioners and Muslim activist women’s groups who led the struggle to invalidate the instant, unilateral triple talaq for over a decade, to finally succeed in getting a favourable Supreme Court judgment on August 22, 2017, is telling. Congress MP Sushmita Dev made this governmental arrogance on the part of the BJP, official when she tweeted out the reply- “No, Madam” - to her question if any Muslim women’s bodies were consulted while drafting a law about the fate of Muslim women, criminalising their husbands, sons, fathers, in case a string of now useless words were uttered by the men.

How does it help women if the men, who they don’t want to leave them on a whim after uttering talaq thrice in one go, which anyway mean nothing now in the eyes of law - are jailed instead? How can a government criminalise a civil wrong and claim to help women while sending them into a dark tunnel of further financial and emotional insecurity? How does “subsistence allowance” get generated when the husband is in jail? Is this “reasonable”, as Union minister MJ Akbar claimed in his speech in Lok Sabha yesterday?

Is this the same Akbar, who had, in a grotesque political somersault, advised former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to intervene in the landmark Shah Bano case, and enact a law in 1986 annulling the Supreme Court’s April 23, 1985 ruling that divorced Muslim women would be entitled to maintenance allowance? How can a man in his lifetime be part of two laws, both of which do a huge disfavour to poor Muslim women, and become the fulcrum of larger communal disruptions, become political instruments of tearing apart the country’s reasonably secular social fabric?     

Bebaak Collective, one of the Muslim women’s activist groups petitioning in the Supreme Court case, represented by senior advocate Indira Jaising, has clearly spelt out that the bill is “designed to be another tool by which to criminalise Muslim men by making the practice of triple talaq a criminal offence, leading to imprisonment”. Instead of safeguarding the Muslim women’s rights, well-being, familial, emotional and financial security, the bill, if made into law, would lead to wide-scale distress for women, making them even more vulnerable. It would force them to put up with abusive husbands for the fear of them being jailed.

It would subject an otherwise functional Muslim couple to the moral policing of outsiders, since the crime has been made into a cognisable and non-bailable offence. This makes easier for the Shambhulal Raigars of the world to call the police and scream that a Muslim man has uttered talaq thrice, even when he hasn’t, whether or not the wife consents to such an accusation, which would now land a Muslim husband in jail.

As AIMIM leader and MP Asaduddin Owaisi argued in Lok Sabha yesterday, there’s no “plead insanity” clause attached to the bill, which means that a basic right to freedom, dignity, mental condition, and whether or not a Muslim is fit to stand trial, have not been taken into account by a government eager to crimnalise what’s a legally invalid pronouncement intended for separation. It’s as good as non-existent and what the government should have done was hold awareness campaigns on TV and print media, organise workshops to educate people and spread the word that instant triple talaq doesn’t have any legal standing. Instead, it decided to come down heavily on Muslim men for an offence that didn’t legally exist from August 22, 2017 onwards until the time the bill is made into law. This is “legal excess”, as noted law scholar Faizan Mustafa has repeatedly asserted.

However, calling it a mere example of “legal excess” is resorting to extreme politeness, which this government neither deserves, nor appreciates. The series of legislations - such as the ban on cattle trade intended for slaughter, the ban on eating beef extending to various states, the increased surveillance of madrassas, as well as the industrial vigilantism carried out with state backing, such as the paranoia around “love jihad” that made even the SC send a top investigative body after an inter-religious couple, locking up even a government servant for taking an oath in Urdu - are all intended to legalise the loss of humanity in short, frequent bursts of legislative lynching, slowly and surely turning Muslim men into dehumanised non-persons, who could be assaulted, beaten up, burned, hacked, jailed over a whim of a complete third party, high on a diet of everyday WhatsApp Hindutva.

History is replete with examples of how the legal framework of a country is twisted beyond recognition to help sow the seeds of larger, epochal crimes against humanity. How the Nazi party of Adolf Hitler, from 1933 to 1939, had brought in one law after another targetting the Jews, eliminating their imprint from government jobs, schools, universities, parks, places of entertainment, newspapers - declaring them second-class citizens (through the Nuremberg laws of April 1933) - became the great lesson of the 20th century. That lesson was about how humanity is lost not in one go, but in installments, a little more every day, and a collective blind eye is turned to what’s an obvious, state-imposed wrong on a whole community of people, labelling them as criminals because of what they eat, drink, how they look, what they wear, what words they utter to get married, or separate, who/what they consider God, who they don’t.

Legal experts will tell us how the triple talaq bill obliterates the difference between minor and major crimes, while turning a civil non-offence - dissolving a civil contract that is marriage under Islamic law, and how marriage ought to be in civilised societies, not sacraments that force two adults to be bound forever to each other, even when they are no longer in love with each other - into a crime. Women’s rights activists and lawyers will tell us how the bill is a travesty of gender justice, is about installing mass surveillance and sexual policing of Muslim families, particularly those from poorer, undereducated backgrounds, and demonising of the Muslim man. How without outlawing polygamy, nikah halala, or the problem of abandonment of the wife without a legal separation - something that has been done by none other than prime minister himself - the claim to save women sounds disgustingly hollow, puerile and patriarchal to the last letter.

This isn’t just internecine war between two patriarchies - that of the Sangh-influenced BJP government dripping with the stinging venom of Hindutva, and the weaker Islamic patriarchy in India that the Muslim women themselves fought and scored a win against in the Supreme Court earlier this year. This is overcriminalisation of the minority community men (and thereby abusing the women in family setups) that is in fact, lock, stock and barrel, with the undercriminalisation and in fact legitimisation of various forms of violence from the majority community. Precisely why a Shambhulal Raigar gets a crowdsourced fund, or a Yogi Adityanath, despite a string of criminal charges against him, becomes the chief minister of India’s most populous state, and eventually goes on to withdraw the cases against himself in a bizarre, but not unexpected show of spitting on India’s constitutional values.

Narendra Modi government’s Savarna saviour complex is not in the least about helping Muslim women. What it’s really about is turning Muslim men into second-class citizens, who can be penalised at will, eliminated, made into a passive receptacle of legitimised violence. Those casting a blind eye to this legalised mass lynching of Muslim men, are being complicit in the bigger horrors that are sure to come. Unless we all rise up in protest, this state-sponsored war on Indian minorities will lead to an irreversible slide into what the 20th century had given us all a more-than-enough glimpse of.   

Also read: I'm a Muslim woman and this triple talaq bill is not what I fought for

Writer

Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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