The virtual absence of a strong opinion from the Muslim intellectual class against the practice of triple talaq, which threatens to snowball into a major controversy, is intriguing. It could mean any of these things: this class, supposed to be more advanced and better placed within the community by a dint of better education or social exposure, is indifferent to the deeply-entrenched unfair practices within the community; it sees benefits for itself in the perpetuation of such practices, and it has outsourced all thinking in matters of society and religion to a bunch of fundamentalists, who have some kind of vested interest in maintaining status quo than encouraging change.
That explains why the triple talaq fight remains confined to a few people and groups, and has not become a topic of a larger intense debate within the community. In his book Revolution From Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite, sociologist and thinker Dipankar Gupta mentions that when at every historical juncture democracy makes significant advances, it was the citizen elite or the elite of calling who led the charge, often going against the grain of popular demands and sentiments. He gives the example of figures from recent history such as Gandhi, Nehru and others who, driven by the higher calling, pushed for positive change in society at the risk of upsetting the status quo and being unpopular.
Since left to itself the society would only maximise the given, it requires enlightened forces from above to drive change, he says. All reforms, social and otherwise, that we have witnessed so far has had such forces in the lead. Now, let’s bring this down to the context of the Muslim community. Before that, here’s a clarification. The Hindu intellectual class is hardly any better when it comes to being brave in the face of forces of continuity and orthodoxy, but it has managed more change than the Muslims by aligning better with secular democratic institutions. Its secular leadership came out much stronger than the religious leadership. This could be changing in recent time though.
Before we get any further, here’s a low down on the backdrop. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, hardly the representative of all Muslims, would insist that since the sharia sanctifies triple talaq, it is immutable. The question to settle now is whether the sharia actually treats triple talaq the way the law board would have us believe. Another question is whether in a country governed by religion-neutral institutions guided by higher human values, personal laws should be allowed to take precedence over secular laws.
The Centre, in its response to the Supreme Court’s notice seeking a reply to whether Muslim Personal Law treated women unfairly in the matter of divorce, is likely to trash the sharia argument of the AIMPLB, saying more than 20 Islamic countries have their own laws governing matrimonial relations, including talaq. If these countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, rooted in Islamic beliefs can have such laws then there can be no logic to the law board’s contention, it is likely to suggest. Keeping the controversy potential of its submission in mind, the government has decided to steer it clear of the Uniform Civil Code issue.
Given that change cannot be an automatic process from below, it has to come from above.
Yet, a controversy is unavoidable given the ideological eco-system to which the party running the government belongs. The AIMPLB is likely to see and project it as interference in the religious matters of the community, by extension an infringement of the constitutional rights of the minorities. At a more crude level, it would be interpreted as one more proof of BJP being anti-Muslim. The issue is likely to get amplified with support from rival political parties.
If the law board stays steadfast in its claim that the practices mentioned in the holy Quran are out of bounds for the judiciary, and the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to make changes in personal laws and manages to rally the conservative opinion community in its favour, it is likely to be a serious blow to social reforms in the community.
This is where the role of the elite mentioned above is almost absent. There has been no challenge to the AIMPLB on its claim that it represents the whole Muslim community or on whether it has any right to interpret the sharia. While it is interesting to note that a few Muslim women intellectuals are leading the charge, and doing well at it, for a change male voices have been more or less inaudible. The deeply patriarchal nature of the community is one explanation for it; the more important one, however, is that the intellectual class in general is reluctant to take the lead because it has not yet managed to define the religion-secular divide in the backdrop of a vibrant democracy for itself yet.
There have been individual voices but that is hardly a substitute for collective voice of an influential class. It is easy to browbeat or outshout them in a rather closed community. Given that change cannot be an automatic process from below, it has to come from above. When are the intellectuals in the community going to be prepared for the responsibility?