Former Congress Party leader and Cabinet Minister Arif Mohammad Khan is well known for his stand against triple talaq. In 1986, he is the one who had quit the Rajiv Gandhi Government in protest against the passage of the Muslim Women Act by the Parliament in the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Shah Bano case. In an interview to Organiser Correspondent Nishant Kumar Azad, he recalled the couplets used by him in his first debate in Aligarh Muslim University where he got the first prize, “Tere maathe pe yeh aanchal bahut hi khoob hai, lekin tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achchha tha” (This veil on your head looks very pretty but it will be better if you use it as flag to fight for your rights) and congratulated the Muslim women who have waged battle against triple talaq for years. Excerpts:
From Shah Bano to Shayara Bano, it has been a long struggle. You have always stood with the cause of gender justice. Are you satisfied with the Supreme Court’s verdict on triple talaq?
Ye yug badalne waala faisla hai (This is an epoch-making decision). I am very much pleased with the judgment of the Supreme Court. This verdict is historical and it is not possible today to make a realistic assessment of the impact that it is likely to have on our future social and national life. To me the number of incidents of triple divorce are not important, what really matter was the fact that a young Muslim girl would grow up with the awareness that after marriage her husband could turn her out of her marital home by three simple oral pronouncements. One can imagine the baneful influence of this awareness on her personality. India is going on the way of truly progressive society where women will have a sense of equality.
Secondly, we must not forget that these few brave Muslim women and their organisations that fought and took up the matter to the Supreme Court had almost no resources or organised support system. They battled against heavy odds and succeeded in putting an end to irreligious and evil practice that was defended by Personal Law Board and their supporters in the name of freedom of religion.
Should this judgment be treated as a beginning for further reforms in Personal Laws?
The basis of the judgment is that the triple talaq is arbitrary. The conclusion is that the provisions of the Personal Law have been tested on the anvil of the Part III of Fundamental Rights. I hope many more battles will be initiated to secure Constitutional Rights. The day is not very far when the polygamy will be challenged as it is also arbitrary and doesn’t find any sanction in Quran. It has been in Arab practice but every Arab practice is not supposed to be Islam.
The last Supreme Court verdict on triple talaq came in the Shah Bano case was overturned by the Parliament and you resigned in protest. Why it could be possible this time? How different the situation is in 2017 from 1986?
The Supreme Court verdict was overturned in 1986 as the then government was pressurised by Muslim Personal Law Board which was aided and abetted by some senior Congress leaders.
The movement of the Muslim Personal Law Board was very vicious in 1986. They used extremely violent and offensive language at that time. Outside the Parliament they gave a call to break the legs of Muslim Members of the Parliament who were opposing their step. Infact three attempts were made on my life. And inside the Parliament, a Minister in the Government Ziaur Rahman Ansari who was supporting Muslim Personal Law Board during the course of his speech used highly contemptuous words against the Supreme Court judges. He described the judges as telis and tambolis (from petty low castes) was trying to interpret the Quran.
Fortunately this time the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through his public pronouncements, committed himself to help Muslim women and the Union Government through its affidavit and advocacy in the Supreme Court honoured this commitment.
Do you see this decision a step towards Uniform Civil Code?
We can discuss Uniform Civil Code (UCC) when we have a draft proposal before us. But we must not forget that UCC is a constitutional obligation as it is part of the Directive Principles of the State policy. The Constitution declares that these principles are fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws.
The judgement however has shifted the onus on the Parliament. Do you think that the political class will stand up for the occasion?
This conclusion does not appear to be correct to me. As far as the majority judgment is concerned the triple talaq stands totally outlawed. Constitutionally speaking, the higher courts as guardians of the Fundamental Rights have the duty to test the impugned provision of any law in force on the anvil of Part III of the Constitution. In this case the issue was triple talaq and the Court has held it to be arbitrary and thus unconstitutional. Legislation essentially comes in the domain of the Parliament and the Hon’ble Supreme Court has merely reiterated the Constitutional position.
There is no reason that political class should not take this call. The Muslim Personal Law is a declaratory law and its individual provisions are not codified resulting in the confusion that prevails today. There is a need to put an end to existing uncertainties and codify provisions in a manner that they are consistent with the provisions of part III of the Constitution.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised this issue of triple talaq many a times. How do you see this?
Certainly that has been very helpful. I would like to quote a critic of Bharatiya Janata Party, Vibhuti Narain Rai who is a Leftist. In my presence in Bhopal about three weeks ago in a public meeting, he said, “Look at this paradox, on this progressive measure triple talaq is going to be outlawed. All the so-called secular parties are silent, Left is silent, and the only party which has been extending its support to the Muslim women who have been fighting triple talaq is BJP and Narendra Modi.” The way Muslim women are celebrating this judgment shows that how happy they are with this verdict.
Diversity has never been a problem in India. We celebrate diversity. We do not have a tradition of tolerance; we have a culture of acceptance. When religion is used as an instrument of suppression and the Government patronises it then it creates a backlash. Now this all has been stopped. I must say that we are moving in the right direction.
But the All India Muslim Personal law Board (AIMPLB) still has been opposing the abolition of triple talaq?
AIMPLB is an NGO in which the majority of members are clerics associated with various madrasas. Historically speaking the clerics have special attachment to status quo and therefore, resist any change. Their attitude is best illustrated by what happened in 1453 in Turkey. In that year the Sheikhul Islam the highest cleric in Turkey issued a decree saying that the newly invented printing press is prohibited in Islam and it took almost three centuries for the printing press to enter in the country. Kemal Ataturk in his speech in 1925 held this cleric obduracy responsible for keeping the Muslim world educationally backward. In India, the story of cleric resistance to modern education that led to innumerable fatwas against Sir Syed is too well known to be recounted. The manner in which they defended the practice of triple divorce and used highly derogatory language against women in their affidavit reveals their mindset. In the light of above references one can say that the basis of their opposition is not logic or reason and what is accepted without reason cannot be weeded out with reason.
Do you think that a section of Muslim clerics is holding back progressive reforms?
There is difference between a scholar of religion and a cleric. The scholar seeks knowledge and wisdom and encourages people to move forward. On the other hand the cleric seeks to entrench his position by holding back people from embracing change and progress. The real remedy lies in education which alone can enable the masses to release themselves from this heavy burden and yoke.