There is a “debate” on Muslim Personal Law that is raging in English, Urdu, and Hindi media but not so much in media in other languages whose speakers constitute a majority of the Muslims in the Indian Union.
The debate started around the case of Shayara Bano when she challenged the constitutionality of Section 2 of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937: “In so far as it seeks to recognise and validate polygamy, triple talaq, and ‘nikah halala.’”
In a pluralistic agglomeration like the Indian Union, when the government passes an opinion on the practices of a community, it is not as simple as it seems. In a political society, such opinions often reflect the biases and relationships that the incumbent political forces have vis-à-vis the particular community whose practices are being opinionated about. The Union government affidavit said that polygamy, triple talaq, and nikah halala are not “integral to the practices of Islam or essential religious practices.”
When a government -- constituted largely by adherents of faith A, with the party in government considered politically not the “best well-wisher” of adherents of faith B -- is in charge of interpreting what is or isn’t integral to the practices of faith B, it also evokes a response from the reactionaries from faith B.
Thus, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has entered the picture and has vowed to oppose what it sees as the BJP government’s design to interfere with personal law practices of Muslims.
On October 13, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and a few other organisations held a press conference where they declared that “Uniform Civil Code is unacceptable to the Muslim community. Muslims are bound to follow sharia in their religious matters.”
While the present debate is not about Uniform Civil Code, it shows that certain Muslim organisations that claim to represent the community at large have dug in their heels.
As for the Uniform Civil Code question, for starters, there is no definition or common understanding of what a uniform civil code will constitute.
That is a separate debate.
The white-haired uncles sitting behind the table at the press conference basically blew it. Their rhetoric showed that they have no idea of the optics in the live-media blitz
This press conference was highly publicised and well reported in media; and could have been a great opportunity to put forward the reasons behind the “no-change” position on the issue of Muslim personal law.
The white-haired uncles sitting behind the table at the press conference basically blew it. Their rhetoric showed that they have no idea of the optics in the time of image-powered live-media blitz, neither did they do any justice to Muslims at large by giving more fuel to the most damaging kind of allegations by majoritarian communal-nationalist elements against Muslims in the Indian Union.
Lets look at what was said at the press conference, including the official press release that accompanied the event.
Why should the government of India not interfere with the personal laws of Muslims? To underline this point, it was said at the press conference that other groups are constitutionally allowed to keep their own social customs.
The Nagas were cited as an example. It’s a terrible example as far as Muslims are concerned. Nagas have always sought independence and have been forcibly integrated into the Indian Union.
Thus, by arguing the Muslims’ case with the example of what is essentially an ethnic nationality provision for Nagas, the “leaders” at the press conference hinted that they look upon Muslims as constituting a “nation.”
This was a widely held way of looking at the subcontinent and found its clearest ideological expression in the “two nation theory.”
Subsequent developments, like that of Bangladesh, have shown that the sub-continent is actually constituted not by one nation (as Indian nationalists would like to believe), two nations (as Pakistani/Islamic nationalists would like to believe), but by many nations, not constituted by religion but by ethno-linguistic considerations.
As if to belabour the point that the above comparison was not a random thought, the speakers at the press conference went on about how what was being discussed had something to do with the unity and integrity of India.
Again, we see the long shadow of the idea of Muslims constituting a nation in India. Whether this is true or not is immaterial.
The government of India has broken every ethical practice in the book while annexing many independent states like Sikkim and Manipur into the Indian Union and then reneged on promises made at the time of annexation, like in the case of Kashmir.
But the point is -- is that the line the leaders at a press conference on Muslim personal law want to take? This choice of imagery and comparison probably shows how limited their constituency is and how non-representative these organisations are.
This non-representativeness was apparent at the press conference itself. There was no woman behind the table. A set of old men sat there. When a journalist probed this, it was told that AIMPLB does have female members sitting in the front rows because there was not enough space at the main table.
This point of exclusion due to lack of space comes as a telling allegory of the nature of disconnect and lack of representativeness these organisations are never ready to admit, let alone reform.
What precisely is the All India Muslim Personal Law Board?
It’s a self appointed non-statutory organisation, whose members are not elected democratically from the vast community of Muslims in the Indian Union. Urdu-speaking, North-Indian Muslims predominate way beyond their numbers.
The most egregious exclusion is that on the question of caste. Pasmanda Muslims or native Muslims who don’t trace their origin beyond India constitute an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Indian Union.
It is only natural that this majority would have at least 50% of the seats in any body that calls itself to be “representative” in terms of Muslim affairs. That is not so.
Pasmanda Muslims are severely marginalised, if not often completely absent, not only in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board but in most of the organisations that co-convened that press conference on October 13.
It is not as if the organisations at the press conference are oblivious to the glaring question of caste. That is apparent from its press release where it rightly mentions Dalits separately from Hindus. In fact it goes far enough to claim that Hindus and Dalits represent different faiths.
However, when it comes to representing Pasmanda Muslims in accordance with their numbers and articulating the Pasmanda position, what we see is a gaping, hypocritical blind-spot.
Muslims of the Indian Union do need to have a say about their personal laws, especially when there are debates about change in these laws.
It is for the simple reason that it affects them. But who speaks for Muslims?
It can’t be left to self-appointed elites who fall on the wrong side of representation on the axis of caste, language, and gender. Neither can it be left to folks who speak to such a small fan-base that they do not understand the dangers to suggesting in 2016 during BJP rule that the “Muslim question” is comparable to other nationality questions.
These are the best Diwali gifts that the Hindu majoritarian forces could get. Reactionaries help each other -- thus cementing their own legitimacy as the “voice” of a community, helping iron over the issue of their non-representativeness.
Those who assembled behind the table at the press conference on October 13 proved that once again by the nature of their rhetoric and practice.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator.