In the government’s first formal comment on its decision not to oppose decriminalisation of Sec 377 that makes gay sex illegal, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the stance recognises changing social attitudes. He also said the offer to Congress for a legislative ‘package’ on gender rights is not posturing. Excerpts of a conversation with Rajeev Deshpande & Sidhartha:
How confident are you about the passage of the pending bill to ban triple talaq and make it punishable? More than 30 years ago, the Shah Bano case offered a big window when the Supreme Court held that a divorced Muslim woman is entitled to maintenance. The clergy at the time was not willing to concede even a pittance of less than Rs 200 for the divorced wife. But at that time, the society did not rise to the occasion. Late Rajiv Gandhi, who was the PM, did not back the progressive intervention of some one like Arif Mohammad Khan. Now the SC order declaring triple talaq unconstitutional offers a close similarity.
The firm commitment of the Prime Minister to this reform is a big difference. This also came about as a large number of Muslim women went to court challenging triple talaq. Now the issue of nikah halala is in court. Both issues have two common factors. Both have been regulated in substantial measure in Islamic nations, including countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Malaysia and some others. The so-called secularists never dispute this fact. The second is a changing India and increased sensitivity to gender justice. I see this empowerment as part of a larger process— ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, women flying fighter planes, a naval team sailing around the globe.
The bill is being opposed on the grounds that it has penal provisions. Triple talaq is going on unabated despite the SC order. I am open to any meaningful suggestion. But the whole issue is centering around not making it criminal. If a wife files a complaint at a police station, the offending husband is granted bail. If a section is so determined to hand out triple talaq in spite of the order of the SC, how will a bailable provision be a deterrent? Is it raised with regard to dowry deaths? The law, like the one on domestic violence, is applicable to Hindus and Muslims alike. So to say who will feed the family if the errant husband is jailed is a misleading argument. In the nikah halala case, we have cases where a woman is forced to “marry” a relative of her husband and divorce again to undo a triple talaq. I know there is a big section of Muslims that favours reform and we would like to hear that voice.
Is the government’s offer to pass women’s reservation bill along with the triple talaq bill serious? The letter I have written to Rahul Gandhi is not posturing. It has a context. The PM had asked in Azamgarh that going by the Congress’s approach on triple talaq, was it a party of only Muslim men? Whether you are pro-Muslim is your concern. But do you care for Muslim women? So we are saying lets us support a new deal of empowerment which is not selective. Nikah halala is equally pernicious. Modern India and medieval attitudes towards women cannot go hand in hand. Many societies are changing and the government’s stand on Section 377 is an example too.
How did that come about? There was a view that may be sexual preference is also a personal choice. Why not decriminalise it? Other issues like same-sex marriages are a separate matter. This was a purely human issue. It is a recognition of changing attitudes in India.
Will the government implement the Supreme Court’s suggestions against lynchings? We condemn lynching unequivocally. We will examine the SC judgment on lynching. There are several provisions in law that allow us to act and must be used. We will examine the recommendations in detail.