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Muslims slam India's verbal divorce bill as campaign ploy

Modi critics say BJP using controversial platform to shore up Hindu support in election year at expense of religious freedom

Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar

Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar

Updated: January 08, 2019 05:53 AM GMT
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Muslims slam India's verbal divorce bill as campaign ploy
Dr. Asifa Nisar, coordinator of the All India Personal Law Board-Karnatka (women's wing), speaks at a press conference on the controversial issue of triple talaq in Bangalore on Oct. 6, 2018. According to this practice, Muslim men can divorce their wives by speaking or texting the word 'talaq' (divorce) three times. (Photo by IANS)
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Opposition to India's move to criminalize verbal divorce among Muslims continued in early January after the governing pro-Hindu party sought to push a bill through parliament last month that would outlaw the practice, which is still prevalent among Muslims.

The lower house (Lok Sabha), in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoys a majority, passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2018, on Dec. 28 despite the opposition staging a walkout.

It is expected to struggle even more as the bill attempts to wind its way through the upper house (Rajya Sabha) due to stiff opposition from political groups including the BJP's arch rival Congress party.

The bill, which seeks jail sentences of up to three years for any Muslim man who divorces his wife verbally, has sparked a backlash from groups that see it as oppressive, religiously motivated, and discriminatory against Muslims.

It was tabled again for the upper house on Jan. 4 but got stalled as critics demanded it be sent for deliberation to a select committee that could soften its edges.

This continued a pattern established last year when hearings for the bill were adjourned from September till this month due to the wall of opposition from the BJP's rivals.

As Modi eyes elections and a newly announced Bollywood biopic of his life this year, the BJP has been promoting the bill as a flashcard for social justice and a giant leap forward for the protection of Muslim women's rights.

The bill outlaws the practice known as instant "triple talaq," thus enabling Muslim women to prosecute husbands who abandon them.

Talaq is the Arabic word for divorce. Previously, a Muslim man only had to repeat this word three times for a marriage to be nullified. The word could be spoken, written or even included in a text message.

A number of Muslim groups and human rights organizations have accused the government of interfering in the religious affairs of minority Muslims, which they see as an attempt to further isolate their communities.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which works to protect Muslim laws, has described the government-backed legislation as inhuman, misogynistic and barbaric.

"If passed, it would damage the family and social fabric of the community," the women's wing of the AIMPLB said in a statement dated Jan. 3.

Ankita Jain, a rights activist based in Mumbai, told ucanews.com the bill is merely a vehicle for the BJP to flash its anti-Muslim stance before the majority Hindu population in an important election year.

"The BJP is positioning itself as being anti-Muslim to assure Hindus who will best represent them; otherwise, why does it feel the need to pitch for jailing Muslims who dare to divorce their wives?" Jain asked.

Ishtiaq ul-Hassan, a lobbyist based in Uttar Pradesh, said people fear the BJP is trying to hoodwink the public ahead of the poll, as the Supreme Court already declared triple talaq to be unconstitutional in 2018.

"So why is there a need to formalize a new law and create such a ruckus throughout the country?" he asked in an interview with ucanews.com.

"The only aim of this is to further polarize the country and create new fault lines in order to hoodwink a particular religious community."

Manzoor Ahmad Sheikh, a Muslim rights activist in the same northern state, said the move to criminalize verbal divorces was a violation of that same Supreme Court ruling, which discouraged the practice but did not make it a criminal offense.

"Muslims used to get bundled in jail on trumped-up terrorism charges. But as that becomes harder to do, new means are being invented to keep the jail registers dominated with the names of poor Muslims," Sheikh said.

The law concerning divorce should be more egalitarian and apply to all people regardless of cast, creed or religion, he noted.

"Why single out Muslims only and jail them for divorcing their wives? Why shouldn't that same punishment be applied to people of other religions as well?" he asked.

By ushering in the controversial new law, the government is playing with fire by further dividing India along religious and sectarian lines, according to Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister for Jammu and Kashmir, the nation's only Muslim majority state.

"The bill aims to push Muslims into an even deeper mess and make them more economically and socially downtrodden and poverty stricken," he said.

"This law would rend their families and divide the country to its core."

India's 170 million Muslims make up 14 percent of its 1.2 billion population, 80 percent of whom are Hindus.

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