Looking back: When another Muslim women bill sparked competitive communalism
India is paying a price for Rajiv Gandhi’s blunder in 1986. Warnings weren’t heeded. Conservatives got stronger
On February 25, 1986, the then Law Minister of the Government of India introduced “The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights On Divorce) Bill” in Lok Sabha with the stated purpose to reverse the judgment of Supreme Court given in Shah Bano case on April 23, 1985. This move provoked tremendous adverse reaction.
A former Judge of the Supreme Court, Sri VR Krishna Iyer, a man of strong left leanings, who, before joining the judiciary, had served as Minister of Law in the Communist government of Kerala wrote a strong protest letter to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on February 28,1986. In this letter, he described the proposed Bill as sin against Quran and warned about the dangerous consequences that the nation will face as a result of this unwise move.
Justice Iyer further wrote: “Will this law meet with its Waterloo at the next polls with Hindu fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists, both inflamed by this indiscreet amendment, struggling for the victory of numbers? Secularists will be a sore minority at the elections, and should the sleeping Hindu giant be provoked into communal frenzy? Every measure to buy the Ayatollah’s pleasure alienates the ‘Vishwa Hindu’ incendiaries. That is the tragic price. The impact on the stability of the state is best guessed by those who know history”.
If we read Justice Iyer’s words carefully, then it becomes clear that he made right assessment of the hazards that Indian secular polity will face as a result of an ill-conceived action done by the government in the name of secularism. What he said emphatically was that there will be few buyers of this brand of secularism, and by succumbing to the pressure of Muslim Personal Law Board and giving them credibility and respectability, the government has aroused communal passions on every side and the country will be engulfed in this quagmire.
In fact, the dangerous portents had started emerging even before the bill was introduced in Lok Sabha. The PM had announced, in the second week of January 1986, that the government has reached an agreement with the Personal Law Board, and a bill to reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court shall be tabled in the winter session of Parliament, scheduled to start on February 5,1986. The backlash aroused by this announcement was so severe that the government started looking for something that could work as a balancing act and divert public attention from the Shah Bano case. In this situation, Ayodhya came as a handy expedient, and on the instructions of the central government, the Uttar Pradesh government organized the unlocking of the gate of the disputed structure.
KR Malkani, the former editor of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated journal, Organiser, in his book “The politics of Ayodhya and Hindu Muslim Relations” wrote, “The authorities informally asked the VHP to move an application for the unlocking of the premises, with assurance of positive response. But VHP said it was interested in the unlocking and not in going to court. So the Congress got a junior local advocate, one Umesh Chand Pande, to move an application on January 21,1986 in the Munsif’s court. On January 28, the Munsif declined to pass any orders. An appeal was therefore immediately filed in the court of Dist. Judge. Here the authorities admitted that unlocking the premises would not pose any law and order problem (and it did not). The Court thereupon ordered on February 1 that the locks be removed. Within hours the locks were duly removed, to the boundless joy of the devotees, and the scene was duly recorded and telecast by Doordarshan.”
On February 6, 1986, I met the PM in his office in Parliament House, and while responding to my concerns about his reported meetings with Board leaders and removal of locks at Ayodhya, he said that no Muslim leader would protest about it as he had kept them informed about the removal of locks. It was clear from the PM’s remarks that the reversal of Shah Bano verdict and Ayodhya were sort of a deal reached between him and the Muslim Personal Law Board.
The severe criticism of Babri Movement leaders by Ali Mian in his autobiography, ‘Karavane Zindagi’, where he holds them responsible for producing enthusiasm in the majority community for Hindu revival, lends weight to the assumption about a deal between the government and the Board. But the problem is that this understanding between two parties was merely tacit and it was not reduced into writing. The result is obvious; the country is still struggling with the communal divisions and tensions of 1986. The situation is best summed up in the words of a poet who said: History has seen the times when blunders were committed by moments and consequence were borne by centuries.
Arif Mohammad Khan is a former Union minister
The views expressed are personal