Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised the controversial practice of triple talaq on Monday, speaking for the first time on mounting calls to reform an Islamic code that he said was destroying Muslim women’s lives.
Modi said women’s rights were a development issue and that people must not politicise the debate to ban the so-called triple talaq in which Muslim men divorce their wives instantly with a single word. The same codes also allow polygamy among Muslims.
“What is the crime of my Muslim sister that just like that over the telephone someone says ‘talaq’ three times and her whole life should be ruined?” Modi said at a rally in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims form more than 20% of the electorate that will elect a new assembly early next year.
“No injustice should be meted out to our mothers and sisters in the name of religion or community.”
India has separate sets of personal laws for each religion governing marriage, divorce, succession, adoption and maintenance. While much of the Hindu law overhaul began in the 1950s and continues, activists have long argued that Muslim personal law has remained mostly unchanged.
The Modi government has said it wants to replace the triple talaq divorce and other Islamic personal laws with a new uniform civil code applicable to all religious groups. That proposal has met stiff opposition from Muslim groups, who argue that it would discriminate against them.
But about two dozen Muslim women’s groups have in recent years mounted legal challenges to triple talaq, which they say discriminates against them and violates their human rights.
Modi’s comments drew criticism from rivals, with some suggesting that he was fishing for votes of Muslim women in the state’s assembly elections.
The opposition Congress sought to strike a balance between women’s rights and need for consensus on changing contentious laws.
“While we stand for equality and fair treatment for women, no hasty step should be taken which may lead to a feeling of alienation amongst any community,” party spokesman RPN Singh said.
Modi said it was his government’s duty to ensure the rights of Muslim women were upheld.
“We should not look at religion when it comes to respecting or protecting women,” said Modi.
“Election, votes, politics must be kept on one side: Muslim women must get their rights.”
But at the same time he also condemned the prevalence of female foeticide in Hindu society.
“Female foeticide is a sin. So what if the sinner is a Hindu? My government has taken a number of steps (to stop this practice),” he said.
Modi’s comments came weeks after the law commission circulated a questionnaire asking for public feedback on banning practices such as triple talaq and drafting a uniform civil code.
The influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board has criticised this move and accused the government of stoking an “internal war” but the Centre has rebuffed the charge, saying its only concern was gender justice.
Although the practice of triple talaq is intended to prolong a divorce so that there is room for conciliation, it has often resulted in the opposite, its critics say.
(With agency inputs)