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 if 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, are in charge of interpreting what is or isn’t integral to the practises 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 is sees as the BJP government’s design to interfere with personal law practices of Muslims.
On 13 October, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and a few other organizations held a press conference where they declared that “Uniform Civil Code 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 organizations 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 what a uniform civil code will constitute. That is a separate debate. This press conference was highly publicized, 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 underlines 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. There have been numerous accords and treaties between the Nagas and the Government of India and the constitutional provisions reflect that negotiation. Even now, such negotiations are on. Thus, by arguing the Muslims case by giving 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” because that’s what Nagas look upon themselves as and the Nage specific provisions of the constitution reflect just that. The idea of looking upon Muslims as a separate “nation”, one of many from which the subcontinent is constituted, is not new. 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 subcontinent 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. Nonetheless, by comparing the Muslim case to the Naga one, the Muslim leaders at the presser got it all wrong, both in terms of optics as well as substance.
As if to belabor the point that the above comparison was not a random thought, the speakers at the press conference went on and one 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 and that the Muslim assent to inclusion in India is based on the promise of certain protections and rights whose violation can reverse the earlier agreed compact. 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 organizations are.
This non-representativeness was apparent at the press conference itself where even tokenism was done with. 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 and some were sitting in the front rows because there was not enough space at the main table. This point of exclusion due to lack of space at the main table that is dominated by older males comes as a telling allegory of the nature of disconnect and lack of representativeness these organizations suffer from but are never ready to admit, let alone reform.
And there are other elements of non-representation and indeed those of suppression of representation. What precisely is the All India Muslim Personal Law Board? It’s a self appointed non-statutory organization 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. Ahmaddiyas are not allowed to be on the board in clear contravention of the fact that Indian law considers them as Muslims. But 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 of Muslims who constitute upwards of 80 percent of Muslims would have at least 50 percent 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 marginalized if not often completely absent, not only in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board but in most of the organizations that co-convened that press conference on 13th October. These included the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Jamaat e Islami Hind, Muslim Majlis e Mushawarat, Milli Council and the Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees. All these are dominated by upper caste Muslims (ashrafs) who claim foreign ancestry at some point in the past. It is not as if these organizations are oblivious to the glaring question of caste. That is apparent from its press release where it rightly mentions Dalits separately from Hindus, this meaning on savarnas by the term Hindu. In fact it goes far enough to claim that Hindus and Dalits represent different faith – “People of the country following diverse faiths – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Dalits, Adivasis etc jointly fought the freedom and liberated the nation from the clutches of the British”. However, when it comes to representing Pasmanda Muslims in accordance with their numbers and articulating the Pasmanda position as being separate from the Ashraf position (similar to the “Hindi”/Dalit separateness that it claims), 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 13th October proved that once again by the nature of their rhetoric and practice.