Narendra Modi corners Congress over missed opportunities to empower Muslim women, politics of 'appeasement'

When a British journalist interviewed Jawaharlal Nehru a couple of years before his death and asked him what his greatest achievement had been, Nehru had said that the empowerment of his Hindu sisters was something dear to his heart. The reporter also asked him about a specific failure of his that pinched him, to which Pandit Nehru replied that he failed to bring the same degree of empowerment to his Muslim sisters.

On Tuesday, in the Lower House of the Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted how Congress' "missed opportunities" on the issue of Muslim women's empowerment and referred to the Uniform Civil Code and the Shah Bano case. In 1986, the Congress government under the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi brought in a new law that would overturn a Supreme Court verdict, providing a monthly maintenance of Rs 179.20 to a 68-year-old divorced lady called Shah Bano Begum.

Without taking names, Modi read out a remark made by someone in the Congress: "One of the former Congress ministers (in the Rajiv Gandhi-led government) made a very shocking statement recently. He said other Congress ministers had remarked that it was not the job of the Congress to reform Muslims. 'If they want to lie in the gutter let them be,' is what the leader said."

In a 2017 interview to IndiaSpend, former parliamentarian Arif Mohammad Khan had made the exact same statement. Khan was a Cabinet minister under both Rajiv Gandhi as well as VP Singh of the Janata Party and in 1986, had left the Congress after the government overturned the Shah Bano verdict. In response to a question on whether the government of the day would handle personal laws of the Muslims sensitively, Arif Mohammad Khan had said, "I do not believe that Rajiv Gandhi took the decision to overturn the Supreme Court verdict on his own. He had a modern mind and was averse to obscurantism. I have, in fact, seen Rajiv Gandhi’s noting on the file, in which he had clearly written that 'there should be no compromise with obscurantist and fundamentalist elements'. He was pressurised to do so by the likes of PV Narasimha Rao, Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari (then ministers in the government). They were of the opinion that it was not the job of the Congress to reform Muslims; 'if they want to lie in the gutter let them be'."

 Narendra Modi corners Congress over missed opportunities to empower Muslim women, politics of appeasement

Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha on Tuesday. Screengrab from LSTV

The Congress strategy back then was clear: win Muslims over by not displeasing their orthodoxy. The most controversial provision of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act was that it gave a Muslim woman the right to maintenance for the period of iddat (about three months) after the divorce, and shifted the onus of maintaining her to her relatives or the waqf board. The Act denied divorced Muslim women the right to basic maintenance that women of other faiths had recourse to under secular law.

In an interview to Firstpost right after the triple talaq verdict was announced in August 2017, Arif Khan had asserted, “Earlier, conservative elements enjoyed the patronage of the political establishment. The political establishment of the day has not sided with the conservative elements and deserves praise to have looked at a gender issue not from the lens of religion but that of humanity.”

Echoing Khan’s sentiments, women’s rights activist and educationist and former member of the Planning Commission of India had shared with Firstpost that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) should have taken it upon themselves to ensure the benefit of women instead of regarding it as an interference in personal faith. “In West Asian countries and in Pakistan, women have pointed out this regressive law to me. India is finally at par with them,” she had shared. Senior advocate Shabnam Lone, who was appointed by the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir as amicus on behalf of Bilquees Akhtar (a lesser known and equally tragic teen talaq life story) in 2014, had shared that the Muslim Personal Law Board has no statutory powers and is in fact just a 'billionaire's club'. "The prophet detested the concept of divorce and they are going against the prophet's words. Triple talaq was against the self-worth of women and it is certainly not what the prophet ordained," she had said.

Through his speech on Tuesday, Modi indirectly questioned those who often defend the orthodoxy in Islam in the name of safeguarding the sanctity of Islam.

Faizur Rahman, an independent researcher and secretary-general of the Chennai-based Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought, had shared with Firstpost, “We lacked a national movement back then. Today, after the judgment, both men and women will become aware of their rights,” 

The Congress, which has repeatedly attacked the BJP for interfering with personal faith by imposing the Uniform Civil Code, is today facing severe criticism in its efforts towards empowering the Muslims of India. In the 2014 general election, the Congress had contested on 464 seats but fielded just 31 Muslim candidates and of those, only seven had actually won. In 2019, only 32 of the party's 423 candidates were Muslims.

In April, senior Muslim Congress leaders in Delhi — namely Shoaib Iqbal, Mateen Ahmed and Hasan Ahmed — had urged party president Rahul Gandhi to allocate at least one Lok Sabha seat to a Muslim. That didn’t happen. Instead, from North East Delhi — where there were more than 7 lakh Muslim voters — former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit was fielded. Why has the Delhi cadre, which is still dependent on its old leaders, not nurtured a single Muslim leader?

In the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections in 2017, in a constituency like East Surat which is home to over 90,000 Muslims, anti-Congress posters that read ‘Musalman ko ticket nahi toh musalmaan ka vote nahi (No tickets to a Muslim candidate will mean no support from a Muslim voter)' were put up. The grudge of the voters was that if new faces like Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel are emerging within the grand old party or are supported by it, then why isn’t there a push towards new Muslim leadership?

When this reporter visited Alwar just before the Lok Sabha elections, local Muslims stated they were unhappy that the Congress leaders like Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot didn’t commit to addressing the issue and as soon as the former was appointed chief minister of the state, he called a meeting of the gau rakshak committees. The soft-Hindutva approach of the grand old party has made a sharp dent into its historic commitments towards the welfare and uplift of minorities.

The Congress often projects itself as a custodian of the Muslims in the backdrop of BJP’s Hindutva leanings. Owing to the prime minister's handling of the Uniform Civil Code issue along with the party’s own manhandling of minority affairs, the validity of that argument can be questioned.

Updated Date: Jun 25, 2019 22:20:59 IST