Shah Bano re-enacted


By Kalpana Sharma



IT is hard to believe that this is 2005 and not 1985. Once again we are being reminded that politics matters, women don't.

In 1985, a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano demanded, and was granted by the Supreme Court, an embarrassingly small amount as maintenance to be paid to her by her estranged husband. Six months after the judgment there was uproar. The apex court has no right to interfere in our personal laws, said the Muslim clerics. And instead of pointing out that even as there are personal laws, there are also other laws that give all citizens certain rights irrespective of their religion, the discussion was hijacked by politics. The clerics are right, the ruling party of that time, the Congress Party, seemed to suggest. It accepted the argument that the courts in India could not interpret personal law for Muslims. Thus, we were given the Muslim Women's Bill that decided on issues like maintenance for divorced Muslim women. Shah Bano, the woman at the centre of the controversy, was more or less forgotten by everyone.

We know now what an important turning point 1985 was in India's contemporary history. The Sangh Parivar has used the fact that the Congress Party acceded to the demand of Muslim clerics to sell its idea of "appeasement". Hindus are being marginalised in their own land, they said, and succeeded in persuading a large number of Hindus about this improbable possibility. And a little over a decade later, they rode to power at the Centre on this platform.

The politics of communalisation that emerged from the Muslim Women's Act led immediately to two fatalities: One, and most important, the rights of the divorced Muslim woman at the centre of the entire controversy, Shah Bano and others like her. No one really cared about what women like her thought. She was immaterial so long as the agendas of the political parties could be played out to the full. And two, it precluded all possibility of a reasoned discussion on whether India should have a Uniform Civil Code. Since then, it has been virtually impossible to suggest that there should be a law that governed all citizens regardless of religion. That discussion is now buried under a pile of vicious communal politics.

In 2005, we see a virtual re-enactment of the politics of 1985 with the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, suggesting that the clerics in Muzaffarnagar, who laid down that a woman raped by her father-in-law cannot remain married to her husband, should not be questioned. Is the Muslim vote so important to Mr. Yadav that he chooses to overlook the law of the land that considers rape a crime? Why, when even the people from the village where the raped woman lives have come out in her support and have condemned the father-in-law, are politicians like Mr. Yadav and others tip-toeing around this issue? How can we hand over citizens of a secular nation to the dictates of religious and caste panchayats and not assert that their actions violate the fundamental rights granted to all people? Why have parties that speak in the name of secularism allowed themselves to become so completely communalised that they are opening the way for a re-assertion of the worst form of communal politics?

The Congress party took its time to respond but has now stated categorically that it is "of the firm view that such barbaric and heinous crimes should be punished under the law". And now, following the uproar by women's groups and some political parties, even the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband, that was supposed to have passed the fatwa on this issue, is apparently backtracking. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, that also came out in support of the fatwa, is also rethinking. But the very fact that the initial response of some politicians was not to confront such groups is indicative of how political expediency overrules any concern for the rights of people, including women.

But the apparent backing off by the hard-liners also illustrates the importance of speaking up and challenging fundamentalism of all types. There are certain rights that are universal human rights. And women's rights are human rights. No religion can condone a violent crime like rape. And the victim of such a crime should not be punished, it is the perpetrator of the crime who should. If caste or religious panchayats issue orders that go against such basic principles, there should be no hesitation about speaking up against them. If in 1985, more people had asserted that regardless of personal laws women also have rights, perhaps the course of things could have been different.

Fundamentalism and oppression flourish when there is no opposition, no one speaks out, no one is prepared to challenge the fundamentalists and the oppressors. And those who pay the price when extreme ideologies take over are, above all, women. We have seen this in many different societies and also in India. For example, in 1987, when 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan, some people tried to justify this horrific custom of "sati", long since banned, in the name of tradition. And precisely the same thing is being done in the case of the young woman in Muzaffarnagar. One interpretation of religion is being used to punish a woman who spoke up when she was raped.

At the time of writing, the woman at the centre of this controversy has said that she will abide by the ruling of the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband. It comes as no surprise that she is saying this. Without support, how can a woman have the courage to go against the dominant trend in her community? But her statement should not mean that people accept that nothing can be done. For if no attempt is made to save the woman, then the way will be left open for more such rulings from caste and religious panchayats.

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