Triple Talaq Bill Needs Relook

The triple talaq bill passed by the Lok Sabha has evoked extreme reactions on either side of the political, social and gender divide. On the one side are the BJP and its supporters, women’s organizations speaking for Muslim women like Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and Muslim women in general, who have hailed it as a much needed, though much delayed, measure to provide protection to victims of the practice under law. On the other are a tiny section of the Opposition (primarily the All India Majlis-i-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), organizations speaking on behalf of the Muslims like the Darul Uloom, All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and Muslim men in general, who reject the bill outright, calling it an interference in the personal and religious affairs of the community. But there are others like the Congress and civil society organizations, who are not opposed to the bill per se, but want it to address legitimate concerns raised in various quarters.

That instant triple talaq is an abhorrent, regressive practice completely out of place in a modern, secular and democratic society and needs to go is beyond question, notwithstanding what AIMIM, Darul Uloom and AIMPLB say. One just has to recall the widely reported case of Najma Bibi of Bhadrak to understand the sheer incongruity of the practice. Even after her husband Sheikh Sher  Mohammed alias Sheru regretted his decision to pronounce triple talaq under the influence of alcohol the very next day and wanted to patch up, the clergy held that the talaq was irrevocable! There is no sanction for this practice in the Holy Quran either. As the Supreme Court, while delivering its landmark judgment on August 22 this year, put it so succinctly; “What is bad in the Holy Quran cannot be good in Shariat and, in that sense, what is bad in theology is bad in law as well.” In any case, most Muslim nations, including Pakistan, have outlawed it. So the argument that it is interference in the personal affairs of Muslims falls flat on the face.

But the need for abolition of this indisputably anachronistic practice does not mean that the Modi government can ride roughshod over the legitimate concerns raised by Congress MP Susmita Dev and others. These concerns essentially revolve around the penal provision in the bill, which clearly has not been thought through or discussed thoroughly before the bill was moved. There can be no argument that there has to be some penal provision in the Act to act as a deterrent; otherwise, it would be observed more in its breach than adherence. But the provision in the bill that mandates three years in jail – without bail, mind you – for the violator is not only harsh, but runs the risk of going to the other extreme in seeking to get the gender balance right.   As Dev rightly pointed out during the animated debate in the Upper House yesterday, who will pay the alimony/maintenance to the victim woman if the husband is sent to jail without bail for three years? The bill makes no mention of whether the government has plans to create a corpus fund for the purpose.

There are other concerns too that have not been addressed in the bill. The Holy Quran provides for talaq-ul-sunnat which, in turn, provides for a three-month long period of iddat to encourage reconciliation between the husband and wife. Any sexual intercourse between the partners during this period automatically invalidates the talaq. Since the husband will be sent to jail for pronouncing talaq-e-biddat (instant triple talaq) as per the bill, it denies an opportunity for reconciliation to the couple. In doing this, the bill repeats the mistake committed by the Chauda Mahala clergy in Bhadrak in the Najma Bibi case.

It is obvious that the bill, in its current form, runs the risk of seeking to address one wrong with another. As the government itself admitted during the debate yesterday, it has not consulted all stakeholders before tabling the bill. One wonders why not? Where was the hurry? After all, while asking the government to pass a law in this regard, the Supreme Court did not set a deadline. The heavens would not fall if the bill is discussed threadbare and all legitimate concerns addressed even if it takes a few more months. Muslims women have been at the receiving end of this abhorrent practice for centuries. They can certainly wait for a few months so that the bill that is ultimately passed is just, fair and gender neutral.