Will the central government be able to muster up the courage to restrict — or redefine — the functioning of Shariat courts in this country? Or will it allow political considerations to soften the only stand it can take to ensure that no alternate dispute redressal system functions within this country outside the purview of the Constitution? It has become clear in recent months that Muslim clerics — whether part of Shariat courts or not — have been taking undue privileges in prescribing the course in cases where they may not even have the jurisdiction to act. The latest instance of a Muslim couple in West Bengal being arbitrarily asked to separate or face social ostracisation after the husband had muttered talaq thrice in his sleep illustrates the utter senselessness of many of the orders that are passed. And in this case, it has been especially so since the damning judgment came with neither husband nor wife even seeking the counsel of the religious leaders.
The problem, however, lies not with the Shariat courts alone. Alternate disputes redressal systems, such as the Islamic courts and panchayats, can have an important role to play in the quick disposal of cases in which a resolution can be found merely by allowing a dialogue to take place between the disputing parties. Considering the huge backlog of cases in Indian courts, as well as the time and expenses incurred while awaiting a verdict, these have become the focal point of mainly those from the rural and lower middle-classes who seek justice. However, this system has taken a huge battering with panchayats repeatedly allowing caste and religious biases to influence their decisions, and Islamic courts failing to maintain both a uniform interpretation of the Shariat as well as stick to constitutional norms while delivering their verdicts.
Since religious leaders and panchayats hold great influence and power over many people, they must be kept in check when dealing with issues where rules have already been laid out by the Constitution. Arbitrary orders, including that on the Imrana rape case and the fatwa seeking the head of the Danish cartoonist who caricatured Prophet Mohammad, make a strong case for abolishing Shariat courts altogether. However, efforts must still be made to allow the Islamic courts and panchayats to work within the Indian judicial system, and to penalise those who cross the limits.