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From Shah Bano To Triple Talaq : Deconstructing BJP’s Liberal Avatar


Triple Talaq, Halala, Mut’ah and Khula and other issues concerning Muslim women have caused paradigmatic bearings upon the dominant contours of Indian politics since the mid-1980s. In fact, these problems have emerged as the most prominent litmus test to deconstruct the ideological posturing and commitment of mainstream political parties, who are jealously championing them in contemporary Indian politics. It turns out that the political divide of the Left, the Right and the Centre, at worst is redundant and at best episodic and issue-centric.

Take, for instance, the posturing of mainstream political parties over the issue of Muslim women in the last four decades starting with the Shah Bano case in 1986 and the Triple Talaq case in 2017. On both occasions, the mainstream Left had been put in a bind and became an oscillating pendulum, deliberately adopted a vague position. They thereby betrayed its sectarian and religious identitarian praxis as opposed to their stated culture-religion-blind rhetoric. The centrist parties led by Congress fared even worse. It openly played to the gallery of religious identities and ironically went to the extent of linking religious identitarianism to Indian secular ethos.

On the other hand, it has been the Indian Right led by the Bhartiya Janta Party that apparently championed the cause of gender equality among the Muslim community, thereby placing the mainstream Left and Centre on a slippery ground both in 1986 and 2017. One must remember that by the mid-1980s, especially post the Shah Bano episode the BJP, led by LK Advani succeeded in denting the core of the Nehruvian paradigm not by posing it against the cultural politics of Hindutva but, rather against the constitutional morality of secularism. This helped to create a counter-narrative of declaring the Congress, Socialists and Left as pseudo-seculars.

From Pseudo Secularism To Secular Sectarianism

In the last four decades since the mid-1980s, the debate concerning Indian secularism has shifted from pseudo-secularism to secular-sectarianism. The structural duality of the Indian Left and Centrist parties in both theory and practice have deserted many marginalized sections, like the Muslim women and a majority of religious subalterns whose interests now are being articulated by the BJP.

The fact that India treats groups rather than individuals as the social unit of public policy, ensured that more often than not a group would be treated as a homogenous category by the Indian state as well as political parties. Therefore, we have commissions looking into the state of affairs of Muslims, OBCs, Dalits etc.

This instrumental approach to treating a group as largely homogenous gets further aggravated in the realm of religious minorities, whose internal ruptures along the lines of gender and caste are overlooked and justified by selective invocation of Art.25 of the Indian constitution and multiculturalism, thereby insulating the issues of intra-community repressions. This then, in popular political practices, especially of the mainstream Left and Centrist parties, leads to confining the question of minority empowerment to the realm of political representation.

This aspect of secular-sectarianism was captured in the responses of a majority of Muslim males during fieldwork on the eve of a state election in Uttar Pradesh. The issue of Triple Talaq had been raised by the BJP whose supporters enthusiastically, albeit sarcastically, argued about the possibility of Muslim women voting for BJP. On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of Muslim males of all age-groups, across the state, declared the issue as an ‘andarooni mamla’ (internal issue) of the community. The BJP’s instance on Triple Talaq was perceived as outrageous and a ploy to paint the community in bad light.

The responses of the non-BJP political parties and orthodox Muslims were equally parochial but complementary to each other. While no non-BJP party raised the issue of Triple Talaq in its electoral campaign, some political campaigns was getting into the towns, kasbahs and villages of the state collecting signatures of Muslim women declaring that the issue is internal to the community requiring no external interference of any kind, showcased as per the fieldwork by the author.

Similarly, in an interview with one of the authors, Maulana Aamir Rashadi Madni, the president of ‘Rashtriya Ulema Council’ a party formed in the aftermath of 2008 ‘Batla encounter’ was acidic in his comments against BJP for bringing the issue into the public domain to humiliate Muslims. Nonetheless, his support was sought enthusiastically by non-BJP political parties.

Identity Politics And Constitutional Morality

At the root of the political tussle over Muslim women, the question lies on intent to proclaim the liberal tag by every outfit and declare the rivals as reactionaries. The 1980s that witnessed the emergence of regressive identity politics along with caste and religious lines also witnessed the new craving for claiming a liberal identity by each outfit drawn from the realm of constitutional morality.

The BJP’s popularising the term ‘pseudo-secular’ in the wake of the Congress government undoing the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shah Bano case was hinged upon the principle of constitutional morality. It cried foul over Congress government’s act to reverse the hierarchy between a universally applied secular law of CrPC 125(1)(a) and section 2 of the Shariat Act, XXVI of 1937 in Shah Bano judgment and declared the move is going against the parameter of constitutional mandate and morality.

The same is true in 2017 Triple Talaq issue. The road from Triple Talaq is straight and clear. It is a universal civil code. Another constitutional mandate that the BJP seeks to fulfil and champion itself as the custodian of constitutional morality, putting the Left and Centrist parties in a bind.

Rivals allege that BJP and Indian Right is selective in celebrating constitutionalism suiting its identity politics. It’s argued that BJP’s liberal avatar is exclusively confined to issues concerning internal affairs of the Muslim community. That’s a plausible argument as one could test the liberal credential of BJP by changing the issue from Muslim women question to LGBT. However, on Muslim question the reverse is true.

Sajjan Kumar, a PhD from Centre for Political Studies JNU and Nikhil Anand, a student of National Law University, Delhi are associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad based research organisation specialising in political and fieldwork based research.

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