Partha S Ghosh
Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi
IN the hullabaloo over the ongoing discourse about whether to criminalise the institution of triple talaq, the BJP's real political game has hopefully not escaped anybody's notice. In our rush to condemn its repulsive Hindutva ideology and the attendant narrow nationalism of cow protection and 'love jihad', we would do well to remember that the party is also a master of strategy. The BJP's politics is threefold and its Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, the so-called triple talaq bill (TTB hereafter), aims at all three in one go.
First, it cleverly shelves the party's commitment to a Uniform Civil Code, which it knows is unachievable; second, it pushes the Muslims into a corner, thanks to the assured political advantage that its Hindutva agenda has wrought; and third, it embarrasses the Congress by converting it into B-team party, one that merely reacts but seldom calls the shots. The BJP's long-term goal is to etch this image of the Congress onto people's minds. A 'Congress-mukt Bharat' is the prize.
The alacrity with which the BJP has pushed its TTB is certainly not to convert its tears for the wronged 'Muslim sisters' into an elixir of gender justice. It is immaterial, therefore, whether the TTB is passed in any form. The success in the Lok Sabha is unlikely to be repeated in the Rajya Sabha. It is likely that a much-truncated TTB that will emerge will not contain the original criminal clauses. The question, however, is political. The BJP has thrown the gauntlet; will the Congress pick it? Whatever noise it may now make in the Rajya Sabha, its sphinx-like silence in the Lok Sabha, where the Bill was first put up for a vote, baffles one's political wisdom. What prevented the Congress from at least raising objections on substantive or procedural grounds? Its TTB politics has neither buttressed its anti-Hindutva credentials nor can it help the party regain its lost Muslim base. During the run-up to the 2019 General Election, its task is to find a new national narrative that can achieve these ends.
In contrast, the BJP has demonstrated that its pro-Hindutva and nationalistic rhetoric, though under increasingly severe strain, still works. A virtually lost election was salvaged at the last moment by Narendra Modi's cynical and rather nasty deployment of these twin cards. In elections, nothing succeeds like success. And so, whatever potency the TTB loses in its final passed form, come election time, we can be sure that the BJP gladiators will don their shining armour and regale cheering audiences with glorious stories of having cornered the Muslim 'mainstream' and their 'sickular' apologists. The support of Muslim women activists and their firebrand leaders, no matter how small a segment they may be, and no matter how little support they might actually enjoy across the Muslim community, can only bolster such dubious claims. The Muslim leadership, stuck in limbo, has failed to provide any counter-narrative. The only political face that is now seen is that of Hyderabad's Asaduddin Owaisi. But his presence is noticed more on TV screens and less among the masses. His firebrand image may have earned him some mileage among the disgruntled Muslim youth, but it is not enough. His handicap is his disconnect with the Muslims of north India, who matter the most in Muslim politics. It is possible that increasing pressure from the Hindutva brigade's foot soldier will push that community into Owaisi's arms. At that time, what he thinks about the Muslim personal law will matter. After all, he has not failed to remind the BJP that it should first amend the Goa civil code, which allows bigamy. Goa is a BJP-ruled state, Owaisi chuckles.
The BJP, however, has its limitations in making full political use of the talaq issue. When several high court judgments, and now even a Supreme Court judgment, have outlawed triple talaq, what is the purpose of beating a dead horse? The courts have repeatedly advised that it is the political class that needs to enact a uniform civil code. And yet, even with a massive mandate the BJP continues to shy away from the issue. Tiny steps like the TTB are mere diversionary tactics for a party that has consistently championed a UCC. They even fall short of the achievements of Rajiv Gandhi's 1986 Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, about which the BJP ridicules the Congress at every drop of a hat. It is a pity that barring the odd statement by a few leaders, the Congress swallows this flimsy insult.
It is also clear that certain provisions contained in the Bill, such as the disproportionality of the punishment of three years for the offender or making the crime a cognisable and non-bailable offence, would not pass the test of law. There are other anticipated social glitches, too. For example, the Bill may encourage some Muslim women who want to teach their husbands a lesson for whatever reason to lodge false complaints. All they would need to do is claim that their husband has uttered those three outlawed words. In conclusion, the TTB is a political and not a legal question. Much will depend upon how the Opposition manages its floor strategy in the Rajya Sabha when it is put up for debate once again during the Budget session.
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