India: Critics Accuse BJP of Politicizing Muslim Personal Law

Prabhat Sharan
2016.10.25
Mumbai
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161025-IN-tripletalaq-620.jpg Sadaf Mehmood, a 31-year-old Indian Muslim woman whose husband instantly dissolved their marriage by writing the words “I divorce you” three times in a letter, plays with her 3-year-old daughter at her house in Bhopal, April 28, 2016.
AFP

With India’s Supreme Court expected to rule next week on a petition to abolish certain gender-biased practices in Islamic personal law, Muslim leaders are accusing the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of exploiting the issue for electoral gains.

Earlier this month the Indian government submitted an affidavit opposing the Islamic practices of triple talaq – which allows a Muslim man to part from his wife by saying or writing the word “divorce” three times – and polygamy, which permits Muslim men to have four wives.

The government contended that these practices perpetuate gender discrimination, which is antithetical to the right to equality enshrined in the Indian constitution.

In Hindu-majority India, where nearly 180 million Muslims make up the largest religious minority, there is no single civil law code for all of its 1.25 billion citizens.

“The BJP government is trying to polarize the [Indian] community and deflect it from gender-related issues plaguing Indian society. The government is more interested in provoking the conservative elements so that the Muslim community can be branded as being rigid, orthodox and anti-woman,” social activist Feroze Mithiborwala told BenarNews.

Muslim personal law is governed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which has resisted attempts to modernize its ostensibly Sharia-based laws and opposed any interference from the government.

Following the government’s suggestion to implement a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) applicable to all Indian citizens regardless of religion, the Law Commission circulated a questionnaire seeking public opinion on the introduction of the UCC. The move angered the Muslim community.

“Our main protest is against the BJP trying to impose [the] UCC through the backdoor. The Law Commission at the behest of the government has put out a questionnaire asking people to answer it without providing them with a draft,” Irfan Engineer, director of the Mumbai-based Center for Study of Society and Secularism, told BenarNews.

“We suspect the government’s motives due to the manner in which they introduced the questionnaire on the very day they filed their affidavit in court. They are doing this to gain political mileage ahead of the crucial Uttar Pradesh polls next year,” he added.

Muslim divorce law destroys lives: PM

On Monday, while addressing a rally in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most crowded state where 19 percent of the population is Muslim, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the Islamic divorce law was destroying lives.

“Any Hindu who commits female feticide will have to go to jail. Similarly, what is the crime of my Muslim sisters that someone says talaq over the phone and her life is destroyed,” Modi said in his speech that was telecast live.

“Politics and elections have their own place but getting Muslim women their rights as per the constitution is the responsibility of the government and the people,” Modi said.

However, Muslim leaders have criticized the prime minister’s stance, saying he is merely using the issue to woo female voters from the minority community.

“The prime minister can stoop to any level. He now wants Muslim women to vote for him as he is desperate to win Uttar Pradesh,” Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of All-India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, told Reuters.

Noorjehan Safiya Niaz, co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a Mumbai-based organization spearheading the movement against gender-biased practices of Islamic personal law, urged the government to refrain from politicizing the issue.

“We welcome the government’s stand on gender equality, but politicization and communalisation of Muslim women issues will only hamper the ushering of gender equality. Scores of women battered both mentally and physically walk into our office every day. It is for them we are fighting the case in court,” Niaz told BenarNews.

However, the BJP challenged the allegation that it was trying to implement the UCC for political gains.

“Gender discrimination must come to an end. We are a civilized society, we are a democratic country; why should there be gender discrimination? Triple talaq is gender discrimination and against the principles of constitution,” senior party leader Venkaiah Naidu told reporters in New Delhi.

“Why should those helpless women be penalized for somebody else’s fault? That is why the BJP, the government, is strongly in favour of ending the practice of triple talaq,” he said.

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