Triple talaq bill: Opposition's obstructionism erodes credibility of crippled parliamentary system

As the NDA government passed the triple talaq bill in Lok Sabha on Thursday amid Opposition walkout, one is struck by the predictable monotony of our political discourse that is caught in a time warp and seems destined to play out in a never-ending loop.

The Centre brought the amended Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2018, to supersede the draft bill that was passed by the Lok Sabha in December last year under similar circumstances. That earlier bill, which followed the Supreme Court judgement in August 2017 banning the practice of instant divorce by Muslim men, eventually got stuck in Rajya Sabha where the NDA lacks majority.

Faced with resistance and criticism that the bill — seeking criminal prosecution of Muslim men and a three-year jail term for practicing outlawed triple talaq — is vulnerable to misuse and targeted at a particular community, the government was eventually forced to bring three key amendments. One, the offence of invoking the banned provision remained non-bailable but an accused may now approach a magistrate to seek bail even before trial. Two, the police were mandated to file an FIR only if a complaint if lodged by the victim (wife), her blood relations or people who became her relatives by virtue of marriage. Finally, the offence was made compoundable, implying that a magistrate can use his or her powers to settle the dispute between the husband and wife.

 Triple talaq bill: Oppositions obstructionism erodes credibility of crippled parliamentary system

Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge during the debate over triple talaq bill. PTI

Though the gaps and lacunae were addressed, the triple talaq bill continued to remain stuck in the Rajya Sabha presumably because the Opposition remained opposed to the idea of criminalizing a ‘civil offence’. In resisting the bill’s passage through the Upper House, the Opposition took an obstructionist approach instead of a solution-based one. The reason is obvious. The obstruction served a political purpose.

It is tough to argue coherently in favour of a practice that has been deemed “void”, “illegal” and “unconstitutional” by the highest court of the land, has been outlawed in 20 ‘Islamic’ nations including neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh and has no mention in Quran. The issue is criminalisation of the practice, and here the debate inside the Parliament and outside it in the public sphere has been hijacked by a deliberate misreading.

The Opposition has argued that the triple talaq bill is bad because it mandates criminal prosecution of men for breaching a civil contract since a Muslim marriage is a contract of a civil nature. This argument is specious because the practice of instant divorce is not only a ‘civil wrong’, it is also a social evil that violates a Muslim’s woman’s well-being, her constitutional rights and gender justice.

As minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said during the debate in Parliament on Thursday, the practice of triple talaq is not based on Islamic law but is a “ku-neeti” (social ill). This also refutes the false equivalence between instant divorce and women’s entry into Sabarimala Temple. The issue of age restriction on women in entering Sabarimala Temple could be linked to ‘right to prayer’ or even ‘gender justice’ (though that linkage is debatable) but it doesn’t represent ‘social evil’ in a way the practice of instant divorce does.

As Justice Indu Malhotra had said in her dissenting judgement on Sabarimala Temple verdict by the Supreme Court, “It is not for the courts to determine which of these practices of a faith are to be struck down, except if they are pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil, like Sati.”

Notwithstanding the amendments, the bill remained stuck in Rajya Sabha, following which the Centre brought an ordinance in September. Thursday’s proposed legislation, that has now crossed the Lower House hurdle, seeks to replace this ordinance. The Opposition still doesn’t have any coherent solution to offer but has taken to recourse to delaying tactics by demanding that this bill be sent to a ‘select committee’.

It is safe to bet that the entire drama will play out again in the Upper House. The bill will remain in suspended animation, and the Centre will re-promulgate the ordinance if it fails to cross the Rajya Sabha hurdle. This cycle of cynicism carries grave portends.

Debates and discussions on the floor of the House are the basis of Parliamentary democracy. These exchanges are the lifeblood of the Republic’s polity. If deliberative politics repeatedly deviates from its central task of aiding the democratic process and becomes an exercise in cynicism on partisan lines, it is bound to affect the health of the polity and eventually weaken democracy.

We have to turn our attention to this critical failure in deliberative process that poses a danger to our political system. The Winter Session — in line with recent, perverse norms — so far has been a waste raising questions against not only the quality of Parliamentary debates but also the very relevance of Parliament in democratic process. This breeds indifference and pessimism among the public.

The predictable drama around the triple talaq bill also presents a lack of imagination in political discourse. The triple talaq bill could have triggered a much-needed, honest debate about male supremacy, gender justice and empowering the real minority. Instead, we were witness to the tired charges of ‘votebank politics’ and ‘interference with religion’.

The Opposition, which must carry the blame of culpability, blew the chance to restore a modicum of respectability and relevance in Parliamentary debates. Undermining deliberative politics may further erode the appeal of a federal system, and masses may gravitate towards more centralization of power. The Opposition needs to get over its myopia.

Updated Date: Dec 28, 2018 13:30:37 IST