India's Muslims fear religious freedom at risk

They are upset over govt's opposition to triple talaq and plan for uniform civil code

The Indian government's opposition to the Muslim practice of triple talaq and a move to explore a uniform civil code for India have angered Muslim groups, triggering a debate on whether such a code would encroach on religious freedom.

India has different family laws dealing with marriage, divorce and property rights for different religions and communities like tribal groups, to maintain the South Asian country's religious and cultural diversity.

But it also results in the continuation of practices such as polygamy, unequal property rights and triple talaq which rights campaigners say are regressive.

Triple talaq - where a man can divorce a woman just by verbally saying the word "talaq" three times - is opposed by Muslim women groups that have challenged the practice in the Supreme Court.

Even so, Muslim groups view the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which recently expressed its opposition to the triple talaq practice in court, as interfering in the religious practices of minority communities.

Muslim groups have refused to take part in a survey initiated by the Law Commission, a law reform panel set up by the government, to gauge opinion on triple talaq.

"Talaq, the marriage institution, inheritance, adoption are all discussed in Islamic jurisprudence. We were given assurance that our religious practices will not be disturbed under the Constitution," said Mr Kamal Faruqui, a member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. "The government is playing with fire."

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, issues important to the Hindu community, such as protecting the cow, an animal considered holy by Hindus, have been high on the agenda of the party and its Hindu nationalist supporters. Political analysts said the proposal for a uniform civil code, promised by the BJP in its 2014 elections manifesto as a gender justice issue, had degenerated from a discourse on gender equality into a Hindu-versus-Muslim issue.

Muslims make up 13 per cent of the 1.25 billion population while Hindus make up nearly, 80 per cent.

"It is the right point wrongly made. Ideally, women's groups, irrespective of religion, should have been at the forefront, not BJP spokespersons. It has become a religion-based issue," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

Political rivals have also accused the BJP of trying to polarise voters ahead of elections in a handful of states. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) yesterday accused the BJP of targeting minority communities and said that personal laws of majority communities also needed reform, instead of a uniform code for everyone.

But many in India remain deeply divided on the issue.

Amid all the controversy, the BJP said it just wanted a debate on the uniform civil code for now.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in a Facebook post on Oct 16, said: "Irrespective of whether the uniform civil code is today possible or otherwise, a pertinent question arises with regard to reforms within the personal laws of various communities."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'India's Muslims fear religious freedom at risk'. Print Edition | Subscribe