Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu’s article, A practice against modernity, published in The Indian Express on Tuesday begins thus: “‘The times they are a-changin’,’ sang Bob Dylan many years ago.” Its readers would have felt reassured because one would think that anyone listening to, and citing, Dylan would bring a touch of the avant-garde to his writing.

But that hope is dashed in the next sentence itself as Naidu echoes what every other Bharatiya Janata Party leader has been articulating with tremendous zeal ever since the Supreme Court decided to determine the Constitutional validity of triple talaq.

Naidu goes on to say:

“But, unfortunately, hundreds of Indian Muslim women, who have been victims of the instant triple talaq practice, seem to be caught in a time warp controlled and dominated by an anti-progressive patriarchal society.”

Obviously, Naidu could not have known that his ministerial colleague, MJ Akbar, who has never needed a “weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, was also caught in a time warp once. Naidu could not have known because on the day his piece appeared in the Express, former civil servant Wajahat Habibullah disclosed in a signed piece in The Hindu that Akbar, who was in the Congress in the 1980s, had advised Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to contest the Supreme Court’s 1985 judgement in the Shah Bano case. The ruling had held that Muslim men needed to provide a maintenance allowance to their former wives after divorce.

Habibullah’s disclosure shows that the debate over triple talaq is not just about the mindless, and misguided, resistance of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to reforms. It is as much about politics. (A disclosure here: I favour the abolition of triple talaq, as borne out by my piece, published in Scroll.in.)

At that time, Akbar and the Congress feared that their acceptance of the Shah Bano judgement could deprive them of Muslim votes – till then the party’s monopoly. Similarly, Naidu, as also Cabinet ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, are gung-ho about reforming Muslim Personal Law because the BJP doesn’t have a Muslim vote bank to lose.

To quote Dylan, “When you got nothing you got nothing to lose.”

However, the BJP has joined the debate on triple talaq with infectious belligerence because there is a Hindu vote bank to gain, as had happened after the Muslim Personal Law Board scared the Congress into reversing the Shah Bano judgement.

Therein lies the irony – Naidu, like all other BJP leaders, employs the yardstick of modernity to stereotype Muslims and declare aspects of their personal laws out of sync with the times. At the same time, it wields the stick of tradition to beat, quite literally, the Muslim community. How?

Contradictory stance

Take cow slaughter, the debate over which has not had Naidu or any of his colleagues cite the principles of modernity and economic rationality to argue in favour of it. Instead, the BJP invokes the argument of religious sentiment to justify the complete ban on cattle slaughter – not only cows, but also bullocks and oxen, regardless of their age. Is modernity manifest in this position?

In fact, economic rationality, a distinguishing trait of modernity, should inspire Naidu to argue in favour of lifting the complete ban on cattle slaughter as it exists in Gujarat, Haryana, and Maharashtra. The BJP is in power in these three states.

With landholdings becoming increasingly fragmented, farmers rear cows and buffaloes so that they can consume their milk, and also sell it to supplement their income. As is the practice in rural India, once cattle stop giving milk they are sold and the money earned is invested to buy their replacements. Since cow vigilantism has made it perilous for farmers to sell their cattle, and for traders to buy them, deals are struck after paying cow protectionists.

In his piece, Naidu keeps talking about the individual’s fundamental right. I wonder what he would have to say to this piece of history: When Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan enacted legislations to regulate cow slaughter in the 1950s, Muslim butchers appealed to the Supreme Court claiming the ban violated their fundamental right to practice their profession. At that time, the court struck a fine balance, upholding the ban on the slaughter of cattle till such age they were deemed economically useful.

But this fine balance was upset in 2005 when the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the total ban imposed on cattle slaughter by the Gujarat government, which was headed by Narendra Modi then. Will Naidu stand up for the fundamental right of Muslim butchers as he has so poignantly done for Muslim women in the Express piece?

Naidu goes on to write,

“Noted expert on Muslim Law, Tahir Mahmood, has also come out in favour of banning triple talaq.”

Indeed, Mahmood has been campaigning for the abolition of triple talaq, reiterated last year in an interview to Scroll.in. Naidu should read this interview because Mahmood also pointed to the gender- and religion-based discrimination that exists in Hindu law.

To cite just two examples from Mahmood’s interview. As he noted,

“If a married Hindu woman were to become a Sikh or Buddhist or Jain, she continues to enjoy all her rights against her husband. But if she were to become Muslim or Christian, she instantly loses all her civil rights. It is a bias of Himalayan proportions. Or if the husband wants to give his child in adoption to someone else, he needs the consent of his wife, provided she hasn’t converted to Islam or Christianity. If she has converted to Buddhism or Sikhism or Jainism, her consent is still mandatory.”

Are these practices not against modernity? Seriously, Naidu should turn his modernistic gaze to scrutinise communities other than Muslims as well.

Naidu writes,

“In the name of plurality or diversity, how could Indian Muslim women be denied equal status and dignity available to them under the Indian Constitution.”

His is indeed a noble sentiment, as it upholds the principle of justice.

The case of Dalit Muslims and Christians

But you wonder whether Naidu will invoke the same principle to include Dalit Muslims in the Scheduled Caste category for reservation. In 1950, through a Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, Scheduled Caste reservation was confined to only Hindu Dalit castes. Over the years, the Order was amended to include Dalits from both the Sikh and Buddhist communities.

This was because it was argued that since Islam did not recognise caste and untouchability, Muslim Dalit groups couldn't possibly face discrimination. But caste is recognised neither in Sikhism nor in Buddhism. Innumerable sociological studies have demonstrated that the embracing of another religion by Dalit Hindus neither improved their social status nor insulated them from stigmatisation.

Therefore the question to Naidu: Is it all right to persist in discriminating against Dalit Muslims? Have Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians been kept out of the Scheduled Caste reservation pool in order to discourage conversion of lower caste Hindus to Islam and Christianity?

Naidu invokes the sanctity of the Constitution and the Supreme Court several times in his piece. That is ironical for a man who belongs to the party whose leaders would openly state that it was not the court’s business to determine whether Lord Ram was born at the site where the Babri Masjid once stood, that beliefs could not be a matter for the judiciary to adjudicate.

Obviously, all this has been conveniently forgotten in the debate over triple talaq, which too, in a way, falls in the realm of belief. Worse, in 1992, the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh reneged on its promise of ensuring the safety of the Babri Masjid, which was razed to the ground on December 6 that year.

Political ends

Naidu had me chortling in the concluding paragraph in which he observes,

“Let there be a wider debate on this critical issue [triple talaq].”

The BJP’s love for debate is a newfound one. Till now, it has shown a penchant for silencing anyone who questions the extant idea of nationalism and the Army’s role in states witnessing secessionism. Or when a Hindu woman asserts her right to marry a Muslim man, or teenagers decide to celebrate Valentine’s Day, or an Indian Administrative Services officer wonders on Facebook why he cannot find any books by Deen Dayal Upadhyay to “gauge his ideological stance.” As for debates on history, listen to what its renowned practitioner Romila Thapar told Scroll.in last year, “Before anyone can debate the Sangh, it has to stop abusing its opponents.”

Let us face it, Naidu wishes to debate the issue of triple talaq because it suits the BJP. He and other BJP leaders know that attempts to reform Muslim Personal Law will provoke the Muslim Personal Law Board to join the slanging match in television studios. Soon, you will see them organise street protests.

The BJP will argue that since Hindu law has been altered, Muslim law should be too and that secularism demands it. BJP leaders will clamour, as Naidu has, that Muslim women must experience the balmy breeze of changing times. The furious debate will turn triple talaq into an electoral issue before Uttar Pradesh goes to the Assembly poll early next year, thereby creating the political ambience for Hindu and Muslim consolidation.

Indeed, Hindutva and Muslim organisations have helped each other grow right through the 20th century. It continues even today. This is why Naidu’s modernity is politically expedient. It is a stick to goad Muslims in order to build a Hindu vote bank.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.