Arif Mohammad Khan is arguably the best known face of liberal Muslims in India. He quit the Rajiv Gandhi ministry and Congress after his leader, who fielded him in Parliament to defend Muslim women’s right, did a U-turn to legislate against the Supreme Court verdict that directed Shah Bano’s husband to pay her alimony. Anju Grover elicits the views of Khan for Indian Currents, following the recent verdict that declared instant talaq as unconstitutional. Excerpts:
IC: What is your reaction to the Supreme Court verdict on instant triple talaq?
Arif Mohammad Khan: It is a historic judgement. I think we are not in a position to make a realistic assessment of the impact of the verdict on our national and social life yet. It has sent a strong message of gender equality and women empowerment, apart from liberating Muslim women from the threat their husbands could divorce them anytime. Some have argued that incidents of instant talaq were few. But why should there be such a right for a Muslim man? The Supreme Court has also said that the religious practice finds no sanction in the scriptures. The court said that it was arbitrary and declared it unconstitutional. It is the beginning of a new era. Women from other religions would be motivated to fight for their rights.
IC: What is your reaction to a few Muslim clerics opposing the verdict?
Their resistance is not unusual. They need to be ignored. Religion is a matter of conviction. When one turns it into a profession, one would want to protect your profession. It is surprising that 90 per cent of fatwas were related to divorce. Therefore, 90 per cent fatwa business will be over. Who wants to lose one’s business? The clerics have inordinate obsession with rituals and practices that have no Islamic sanction.
IC: Are you in favour of a uniform civil code?
The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is a constitutional obligation mentioned in the Directive Principles of State Policy. It cannot be ignored. This was the dream of those who framed our Constitution. Let there be a UCC draft. It does not mean people will be compelled to adopt uniformity and customs. This is about rights and duties related to marriage. India loves diversity. In a secular democracy, religion is an individual right.
IC: Why do you think the Congress never made an attempt to implement UCC?
Even now, no attempt is being made to implement UCC.
Is it not part of the BJP’s agenda?
I don't think so. The BJP has been extremely helpful to women who fought against instant triple talaq. PM's speeches have been the source of encouragement for these women. The government’s affadavit was supportive too. The Supreme Court has asked the government to legislate. Now, it is up to the BJP-led government to do so.
Are you of the opinion that there is no political will to introduce UCC?
It is Muslim women who have created the ground for UCC. Compare the situation with 1990s...The Muslim Personal Law Board had then said that you can't touch Shariat. Now the Board itself described it as ‘bad’ and acknowledged it needs reform. This is the result of awareness about rights that literacy among Muslim women has created. In 1986, nobody was ready to speak against the clerics. In 2017, ordinary Muslim women are ready to join issue with the clerics.
IC: Do parties have a political will to implement UCC?
What is required is mass mobilisation, than look for political will.
IC: Why does instant talaq happen?
A man does something in the heat of the moment, uses three words and later regrets it. On the contrary, the procedure of talaq prescribed in the Quran is a long process. It gives sufficient time to both husband and wife to have a rethink. Hence, restricting instant divorce is a progressive measure.
IC: Is there the need for a legislation after the verdict?
A legislation is required as the Supreme Court has outlawed the practice of instant triple talaq. The court does not provide a legislation.
IC: Do you think that the Modi Government will introduce a legislation?
The government should be responsive to sentiments of the people. The manner in which the PM has spoken on the issue and subsequent developments have given hope to all.
IC: How would you describe the journey from the Shah Bano case to Shayara Bano case?
It has been a very meaningful journey. In the Shah Bano case, the Supreme Court delivered a judgment favouring maintenance given to an aggrieved divorced Muslim woman. Yet, Shah Bano was compelled to announce that she won't accept any maintenance from the husband following the advice of the Muslim clergy. However, this time, ordinary women have joined the issue with clergy on the streets and media fora. My kudos to the petitioners in the case, who have extracted their constitutional rights despite constraints!(Published on 28th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 35)