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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

India parliament's upper house to debate controversial triple talaq bill

Opposition parties are hoping to dilute the legislation to remove provisions unpopular with radical women's rights groups and conservative Muslim men alike

An Indian Muslim woman walks outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi on January 3, 2018. Harish Tyagi / EPA
An Indian Muslim woman walks outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi on January 3, 2018. Harish Tyagi / EPA

A debate on a controversial bill banning the practice of triple talaq is due to take place in the upper house of the Indian parliament on Thursday, with opposition parties hoping to correct what they see as major flaws with the legislation.

The bill was passed on December 28 by the lower house of parliament, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a majority. In the upper house, however, it is a different story. There, the BJP does not have a majority and opposition parties — primarily the Congress party — are hoping to dilute the triple talaq bill to remove provisions unpopular with groups at both ends of the political spectrum.

Virtually no one in the opposition is opposed in principle to the legislation formally known as The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill. In recent years, there has been widespread outrage among both Muslim women and the wider general public over the practice of triple talaq, a form of Islamic divorce that allows men to dissolve their marriages simply by stating the word "talaq" (divorce) three times. Though triple talaq is banned in many Muslim countries it is still commonly practised in India, where women have found themselves suddenly divorced and abandoned after receiving a single text message.

In August, however, the supreme court ruled that triple talaq was unconstitutional and “not integral to religious practice". The ruling came in response to a petition filed by Muslim women's groups and victims of triple talaq and was hailed as a huge victory for India’s 90 million Muslim women.

Following the ruling, the BJP government drafted a bill to ban the practice but crucially, critics say, without consulting experts, Muslim groups, or women’s groups. The resulting legislation has managed to unite two ends of the political spectrum, radical women’s rights activists and conservative Muslim men, both of who view the bill as, at best, draconian and, at worst, an attempt by the Hindu nationalist BJP to fill Indian jails with Muslim men.

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Read more:

‘Triple talaq’ divorce not legal in EU, top court rules

Opinion: The battle over ‘triple talaq’ in India goes far beyond Muslims alone

India seeks to part ways with ‘triple talaq’ divorces of Muslim women

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Under the bill, men can be imprisoned for three years for saying talaq three times, with bail not allowed under any circumstances. In addition, any third person can accuse a Muslim husband of the offence, while the bill also does not specify how the wife will be supported when her husband is in jail.

"Why put the man in jail and close doors for reconciliation? And how will a man provide for his family if he is behind bars?," wrote the Muslim art curator and former journalist Irene Akbar in an opinion piece for online news site The Citizen. "The most absurd part of the bill: a neighbour, an enemy in an unrelated dispute, almost anyone can complain against the Muslim man. And the police can arrest him without a warrant."

Former Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaisingh also has profound reservations about the bill, particularly over the fact that it will likely make any possible reconciliation between couples even more difficult.

"How will it help a Muslim wife who wants to keep her marriage to have her husband in prison? I cannot support turning Muslim husbands into criminals," she said.

Asaduddin Owaisi, head of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party, agreed, saying the bill was badly drafted and ill-conceived.

"It is not going to give justice and equality to Muslim women. It will only make their lives worse," he said.

The main opposition Congress party has been treading more softly, however, anxious not to appear to be opposing justice for Muslim women. But it is hoping other opposition parties in the upper house will support its call for the bill to either be amended by the BJP or be sent to a standing committee for closer scrutiny if that demand is not met.

Meanwhile, many of the Muslim women’s groups who supported the petition for triple talaq to be banned are divided over the bill.

Much of this has to do with the political and social context surrounding the bill. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, Muslims, a minority group in India, have felt increasingly insecure and beleaguered.

In that time, nearly a dozen Muslims have been lynched and many more beaten up by members of Hindu nationalist groups after being falsely accused of having killed a cow — considered sacred by Hindus — or transporting one to slaughter. Many BJP leaders have not spoken out against this violence, much of which has been carried out by groups affiliated with the party, and in some instances have even voiced support or sympathy for the perpetrators.

Hindu nationalist groups have also increasingly accused Muslim men who marry Hindu women of carrying out "love jihad" — of only marrying them in order to convert them to Islam.

The Bebaak Collective, a coalition of women's groups that played a pivotal role in the campaign against triple talaq, has warned “the move to imprison Muslim men will add to the prevailing insecurity and alienation of the Muslim community”.

Ahead of Thursday's debate, it seemed unlikely that the bill would pass in the upper house and that members would instead vote for the legislation to be sent to a standing committee. If that does happen then members of the committee will consult groups and experts and suggest amendments before the bill is sent back to both houses of parliament. That scenario will mean the bill cannot be passed before next month.