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This article was first published 6 years ago  » News » 1986 moment: Will the seculars play it right this time?

1986 moment: Will the seculars play it right this time?

By Mohammad Sajjad
March 15, 2018 10:57 IST
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'In the name of pluralism-secularism, the kind of politics that was pursued revealed to many that it was basically a favour to Muslim conservatism and communalism -- a politics of minority-ism, rather than of secularism.'
'This is how significant sections of Hindus have been made to loathe the very idea of Indian secularism by now,' says Mohammad Sajjad.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

The Muslim Personal Law Board and the Imarat-e-Shariah (Patna) have organised a political rally, 'Deen bachao, Desh bachao conference', to issue a clarion call that Islam is in danger, in Patna's Gandhi Maidan on April 15.

Such mobilisation has already been done in Jaipur, Malegaon, Godda, Darbhanga and various other places.

This is a dangerous game being played out, after what they did in 1986 in the wake of the Shah Bano verdict, inflicting injuries upon Indian secularism by subverting the institution of the Supreme Court of India.


Left historian Sumanta Banerjee said it right in his interview with Ajaz Ashraf on, 'When we raise questions about Hindu fundamentalism, we need to do the same regarding Islamic fundamentalism. There are reformist movements among the Muslims but, sorry to say, the Congress compromised with the mullacracy.'

This move by the clergy, therefore, needs to be resisted very strongly by not just Muslims, but also by all those political parties which stand for secularism, and by all civil rights groups.

Here's why.

In 1986, having denied maintenance to 70-year-old Shah Bano, outfits like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board never sought to find out ways of taking care of such deserted, destitute, hapless, divorced women.

Since the board argues that the State cannot interfere in the community's affairs, it became incumbent upon the board to have created an endowment or any welfare mechanism to take care of such women.

For over three decades, between 1986 and 2017, the clergy did not feel any moral responsibility for this.

But unlike in the Shah Bano case, this time, in the Shayara Bano case, the MPLB was a respondent (no 7) before the Supreme Court where it took the stand that 'it was not for the judiciary to decide matters of religious practices such as talaq-e-biddat, but for the legislature to make any law on the same.'

The Supreme Court verdict came on August 22, 2017, outlawing talaq-e-biddat or instant talaq. The board welcomed the judgment sheepishly, but didn't issue a fatwa against the practice.

Since the board had taken the stand that such issues needed to be resolved through legislation, they should have brought out a draft bill for public debate. They did not do so either.

For almost four months, between August 22 and December 15, 2017, the date when the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill was moved in the Lok Sabha, the board did not carry out any activity like awareness campaigns and mass mobilisation.

But once the bill criminalising talaq-e-biddat was moved, these forces suddenly became hyperactive.

Even now, a highly uninformed, in fact misleading, emotive mobilisation is underway.

Rather than publicising the lacunae of intent and implications (whatever they see) in the Bill, and rather than coming out unambiguously against the un-Quranic talaq-e-biddat, they are defending and safeguarding it shamelessly.

Quite arrogantly, they have not brought out a model nikahnama. The one they had proposed to bring in was to have merely an option to volunteer that talaq-e-biddat won't be exercised.

On February 3, 2018, The Times of India (Lucknow) reported that the model nikahnama will be on the agenda of the AIMPLB plenary at Hyderabad the next day. However, this was dropped, despite the fact that they were not going to call for a complete prohibition.

The Union government's Bill presented in the Lok Sabha on December 15, 2017, provides for 'matters such as subsistence allowance from the husband for the livelihood and daily supporting needs of the wife... and of the dependent children'.

The board, even while completely rejecting this Bill, is not proposing how to address all these pertinent issues.

Here it needs to be added that under the old provision about 'vagrants' in the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure, courts had time and again held Muslims to be liable for their pauper wives/ex-wives who were abandoned or divorced for the simple reason that the provision in question was one of criminal and not civil law.

This was reiterated in 1974 Code of Criminal Procedure as well.

The Muslim leadership may have been justified in 1986 had they led a protest against the sweeping remarks (in the judgment) about 'obscurantist Muslim law' without questioning the relief given to Shah Bano and other similarly situated women, which basically reiterated the position that had held the field at least since 1898.

Quite importantly, talaq-e-biddat is prohibited in many Muslim majority countries, and most Muslim sects disapprove of it. Yet, this regressive patriarchy is sought to be perpetuated by the clergy.

This is certainly a serious assault on secularism, something they inflicted in 1986 as well with the cry of 'Islam in danger', when the secular parties were complicit in it.

A closer look at the political history of the Indian Republic clearly suggests that every political formation and its leadership need frightened Muslims.

The political formations pursuing politics in the name of secularism secured Muslim votes en bloc by frightening them with communal violence.

Providing protection from such violence was demonstrated to be a special favour to the religious minorities. This went almost without any judicial trial against the rioters, politicians and the partisan police officers.

In the post-Congress era, the single caste/dynasty-based regional formations did the same. Muslims were not allowed to concern themselves beyond protection from communal violence.

To sustain and perpetuate this politics, the Muslim leadership counselled its constituency to remain concerned solely with religio-cultural and emotive issues, through which regressive patriarchy was also perpetuated.

In the name of pluralism-secularism, the kind of politics that was pursued, over a period of time, revealed to many that it was basically a favour to Muslim conservatism and communalism -- a politics of minority-ism, rather than of secularism per se.

This is how significant sections of Hindus have been made to loathe the very idea of Indian secularism by now. This partly explains why and how, the BJP and its affiliates have now become a hegemonic political force.

Backed with State power, now Hindutva rabble-rousers openly lynch Muslims, and then mocking at every rule of law, video-graph it, circulate it.

This demonstrative lynching and other victimisation is also a kind of statement, throwing a challenge to the political formations thriving on Muslim votes, sort of saying, 'Look! This is what we are doing to your consistently loyal voters, and if you have the political guts then come out to act and save your support base!'

Silence and inaction, not even the tokenism of statements, are the response of most of such political parties and leaders these days.

It seems, gone are the days of politics of minorityism, and Muslims are now being projected to be an electoral liability.

The party talking of Muslims stands to lose Hindu votes.

In such a dismal scenario, when even these 'secular' political formations are looking the other way, term it as a wilful failure of secular parties and of the State machinery, there arises the Owaisi kind of politics, trying to spread beyond a pocket of Hyderabad, to parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, etc.

With his training in law from the West, he articulates the grievances of minorities, cleverly couched in Constitutional language.

This at a time, when the hegemonic political force, armed with State power, disdains such provisions of the Constitution as an undue favour to the minorities (what they call appeasement), and as victimisation of the majority.

But the Owaisi brand of politics too, ironically, thrives on fear of minorities.

How does he articulate his politics? That Muslim issues cannot be addressed by any party howsoever pretending to be secular, implying that a 'Muslim' party alone can take care of Muslim concerns.

Since the Owaisi kind of politics also needs a scared minority, he, too would align with all the regressive forces and tendencies within the community, just as the Congress and the post-Congress regional forces did, as Owaisi did a few weeks ago by hijacking the MPLB.

Therefore he refuses to raise the issue of gender and caste-based justice.

Political opportunism requires a consolidated community living in perpetual fear. Hence, it helps him downplaying heterogeneities within the community.

All right-wing politics needs a consolidated community. Fear takes away reason.

Pushing politics beyond the logic of mere protection, and thereby raising the issues of gender and various layers of social justice, will require much more complex skills of management and mobilisation.

This will also ask for broadbasing and democratisation of the political party he runs as his own personal fiefdom. Why should he then shun the convenience of an opaque deal with a handful of representatives and demagogues!

Recall the recent expose of such a deal made by Salman Nadvi, a cleric on the MPLB executive, with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the Ayodhya issue.

The AIMPLB has only 'dissociated itself' with Salman Nadvi. They are not taking a categorical position as to whether the act of entering into such a deal on a sub judice matter like Ayodhya, was appropriate and fraught with political-institutional implications.

Thus, mere hospitality to the MPLB at Hyderabad (in early February 2018, when it held its 26th plenary) has fetched Owaisi many supporters across the country to the extent that thousands of Muslim women are out on the streets demanding the perpetuation of their own subjugation. These women are not presented with a draft bill proposed by the AIMPLB.

On the command of the clergy, now supported by Owaisi, the un-Quranic, instant triple divorce (talaq-e-biddat), is being demanded by them to be safeguarded in the name of Shariat which was enacted only in 1937, but is being paraded as divine. Something which most Muslim majority countries have done away with!

The West-educated barrister is shamelessly championing this regressivism, just as many modern-educated liberal Muslims, in 1986, had either sided with the Congress or kept mum on the regressivism that was done in the case of legislation against Shah Bano's judicial victory.

How cunningly Owaisi maintains his silence on the unscrupulous underhand deal made by one of the MPLB executives, Salman Nadvi! This in itself testifies something significant about his politics.

Notably, no big rally has been organised by the clergy or by Owaisi against lynching. They won't ever bring out such big rallies on the issues of artisans, farm distress, education, healthcare, employment, etc.

The saffron forces would then tell their constituency: 'Look here, despite our hegemony, these Muslims are not prepared to be stationed in their place; they are still craving for political power as equal citizens, rather than being contented to live with whatever little we would be offering to them.'

The BJP gets yet another testimony to convince its constituency that the majority is in perpetual threat of the minority. Thus, an Owaisi is too useful for the BJP. Both fatten each other; each derives sustenance from the other.

Yet, the liberal-pluralists across the communities and groups seem to stay contented with one thing: Failure of the incumbent right wing regime on agro-economic fronts will eventually bring back the centrist forces to power. They may well be grossly mistaken in this smug understanding.

Cynical exploitation of the idea of secularism during these many decades has eventually shifted the Indian polity right-ward. In the distant future, even if an election would throw them out of power, their presence in the legislatures would most probably remain quite significant.

So, is there a way out?

One way is both Muslim liberals as well as the other liberal, progressive, Left, voices admit to their past follies.

They should launch a massive campaign against the misadventure of the extremely dangerous mass mobilisation of the MPLB to perpetuate misogynist practices like talaq-e-biddat.

They should come out with whatever reasonable amendments they wish to propose in the Bill that was introduced on December 15, 2017.

Quite clearly, pandering to, or tolerating minority communalism/conservatism, cannot help them fight majority communalism.

Will they wake up?

Well, at the moment, it seems least likely!

​Professor Mohammad Sajjad is at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, and is the author of two books: Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857.

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