The ghost of the Shah Bano case continues to haunt the Congress party that has been struggling to spell out its stand on the triple talaq issue.
In 1985, the Supreme Court directed Mohammad Ahmed Khan to pay a monthly maintenance of Rs 500 to 69-year-old Shah Bano whom he had divorced after 43 years of marriage to marry another woman. The verdict outraged a section of the Muslims who termed it “interference” in the Muslim personal law.
However, the Rajiv Gandhi government invalidated the Supreme Court verdict by passing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. It set aside the rights of divorced Muslim women to receive maintenance under Section 125 of the CrPC as per the Supreme Court judgement.
The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to pacify the Muslims who had been the traditional voters of the Congress but it backfired as the party lost the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, plunging to 197 seats from 404 in 1984.
The divorce practice, the Modi government has told the top court, violates the Constitution and is against gender justice and equality.
The general refrain in the main opposition party is that the matter of triple talaq is sub-judice and the Supreme Court should be allowed to decide on the issue and Congress leaders usually avoid a direct reply to any controversial subject.
On Friday, Congress spokesperson Shobha Oza maintained that her party was always in favour of empowering women but at the same time said that the apex court should be allowed to decide on the “tricky matter” of triple talaq.
On another contentious issue of uniform civil code, the Congress is of the view that it should not be imposed without taking all the stakeholders into confidence. Under the uniform civil code, personal laws based on scriptures and customs of every religious community in India will be replaced with a common set of laws applicable equally to all citizens.
Oza quoted BR Ambedkar to drive home the point that everyone should be on board for any change to be undertaken.
“It is not proper if this does not happen,” Oza said, as several Muslims groups have opposed the law commission’s move to seek public opinion on common civil laws.
“It (uniform civil code) can be adopted if it is accepted by all sections of society,” she said.
The discomfort was again palpable on Sunday when veteran leader Ghulam Nabi Azad virtually stopped former member of Parliament and a new recruit to the party Obaidullah Khan Azmi from explaining his stand on the issue of triple talaq.
“If the government tries to misuse it or make any wrong move on the issue then I will fight against it. I will oppose it in my individual capacity,” Azmi, who is an office-bearer of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), said.
Azmi had vehemently opposed the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case.
Azad tried to play down Azmi’s remarks. “Since the matter is in the Supreme Court, there will be no discussion on it.”
On Monday, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari parried a question on the triple talaq issue. “There is a petitioner, there is a respondent and there is a judge and the matter is sub-judice,” he merely said.
Perhaps that explains the Congress’ dilemma on the contentious issue as it does not want to be seen taking sides.
In India, there is a separate set of laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance for each community and demand for their review has increased especially after some Muslim women challenged the practices of polygamy and triple talaq, which allows a man to divorce his wife by pronouncing the word talaq thrice, in the Supreme Court.
On October 7, the Law Commission floated a 16-point questionnaire on its website asking common people, activists, organisations and other stakeholders to give suggestions on the implementation of the code.
Several prominent Muslim organisations in the country have opposed the move and urged the Muslims to boycott the questionnaire by not responding to it.