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Don’t be Fooled by This Triple Talaq-Women’s Reservation ‘Deal’

Are Ravi Shankar Prasad and the BJP planning to blame the Congress for failing to pass the Women Reservation Bill?

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Opinion
5 min read
Don’t be Fooled by This Triple Talaq-Women’s Reservation ‘Deal’
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What do the women of India need to ensure equality and adequate representation?

A deal between two men, of course.

At least that’s what Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad seems to believe, if his letter to Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday is anything to go by. In light of Gandhi’s recent support of reservation for women in Parliament and state Assemblies, Prasad proposed that the Congress support the BJP to approve the Women Reservation Bill, as well as the government’s laws against triple talaq and nikah halala. Oh, and the Congress should also support the proposed revamp of the National Commission on Backward Classes (NCBC).

Now I understand that it is naïve to think that politics isn’t a game of quid pro quo, that in reality there’s always some give and take when a government tries to get something done in a legislature. What is less understandable, however, is how one of the senior Cabinet ministers of this government thought it is appropriate to make this offer of a deal public, and how he thinks it will fool anyone at all.

Too caught up to read the whole story? Listen to it here:

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No Connection Between Proposed Laws

First, the obvious absurdities.

Why does the BJP need the Congress to make a deal on this at all? The Women Reservation Bill already has Congress and substantial Opposition support, which means that if introduced, there’s no danger of it failing to pass. It’s not as if the demand of reservation for women is a Congress idea – it was part of the BJP’s 2014 manifesto after all. So what is the need to make this look like some back-alley “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” deal?

Why is the BJP government making the fate of women’s reservations dependent on triple talaq and nikah halala? Sure, triple talaq and nikah halala are regressive, exploitative practices, and have no place in any egalitarian society. But why should there be a connection between getting rid of these things and ensuring we have more women lawmakers?

In fact, there isn’t even a need to pass a law on triple talaq since the Supreme Court already declared it illegal in 2017’s Shayara Bano case. Nikah halala is also set to be adjudicated on by the apex court this year – and it makes sense to wait till that judgment is out. Otherwise any legislation on it will be challenged in the Supreme Court. Passing a law on either is therefore of little practical use at this point.

Reservations for women, however, require an Act of Parliament, so legislation is needed.

With the general elections coming up next year, it is essential that this be put in place now if we don’t want to wait another five years, and if the BJP is serious about using this to improve female representation.

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Criminalisation – The Real Reason for Opposition

But therein lies the rub. Because the BJP obviously aren’t serious about any of this, and Prasad’s “new deal” is just a gimmick, meant to score political points and avoid criticism for failing to get through important legislation.

This becomes quite apparent from a reading of Prasad’s letter to Gandhi. Take a closer look at his proposal to the Congress:

As part of the new deal, we should approve, in both Houses of Parliament, the Women’s Reservation Bill, the law prohibiting Triple Talaq and imposing penal consequence on those who violate the law, and prohibiting Nikah Halala.
(emphasis supplied)

The part highlighted in bold is crucial. Prasad is not just asking for a law which prohibits triple talaq – he is also asking for a law which makes it a criminal offence. By expressly mentioning this point in his proposal, by making it clear that any Triple Talaq Bill has to include criminalisation, he makes sure that the Congress will be unlikely to support it.

Criminalisation is the reason why the Congress and other Opposition parties stalled the government’s Bill in the Rajya Sabha during the Winter Session in the first place. A civil law saying that triple talaq is invalid and guaranteeing maintenance, custody rights and other protections to the wife would probably face no opposition by any parties, and could not be objected to by Muslim organisations thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision.

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Making it a criminal offence – and that too, a cognisable, non-bailable offence punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment – is an entirely different kettle of fish.

The Congress and numerous activists have pointed out that this defeats the very purpose of saying triple talaq is illegal – of keeping the family together and not leaving the wife and children destitute at the whims of the husband. If the husband is sent to jail, this will also mean leaving the wife and children destitute – and no, the requirement for the husband to provide a subsistence allowance to the wife is of no use if he’s in jail and earning nothing/next to nothing.

The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill 2017 has been hurriedly drafted, without really giving thought to these issues, or things like how to establish a standard of proof. It was for this reason that the Congress asked for the Bill to be sent to a Select Committee during discussion in the Lok Sabha (where they still voted in favour), and to a Parliamentary Standing Committee during debate in the Rajya Sabha (which stalled the Bill).

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Does the BJP Want the Deal to Fail?

So here’s the thing – if the BJP were serious about cutting a deal (regardless of how irrelevant this is), they would have indicated a willingness to reconsider the penal consequences. What it looks like, however, is that they are counting on the Congress to refuse to back down on the criminalisation aspect. Which gives them a convenient scapegoat to blame if (when?) the Women Reservation Bill fails to get introduced.

After all, this isn’t necessarily an easy legislation to implement in a country where patriarchy and discrimination against women is rife, and the BJP may be unable to get sufficient support among its MPs. Apart from this letter, the BJP has shown zero intent to push for women’s reservation over the last few years.

Even if you wanted to be charitable and say they aren’t just looking for a way to blame the Congress, this letter shows that they are not taking a principled stance, but looking to make it a quid pro quo.

That the BJP are looking to make this an impossible to deal to implement can also be seen by the casual reference to the NCBC right at the end of the letter as well. The BJP knows full well that the reason the revamp of the Commission has been stalled is because, ironically, the Congress and other Opposition parties are insisting that the Commission include two more members, one of whom must be a woman.

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In addition, there is resistance to the government’s proposed Bill in Parliament and the state legislatures since in addition to the revamp of the NCBC, there is a pretty sneaky clause in it to hand over the power to decide which communities will be considered OBCs in the states, to the Centre.

It is obvious, therefore, that the Congress isn’t going to get behind these government plans, and they have genuine reasons not to – none of which should have any bearing on the Women Reservation Bill. The law minister may think that we can’t see through such a transparent ploy, but we’re not that stupid just yet.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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