Ever since the Law Commission released a questionnaire inviting opinion on a Uniform Civil Code earlier this month, hysteria has gripped the male leadership of the Muslim community. This is reminiscent of the frenzy witnessed after the 1985 Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case, in which the 62-year-old divorced mother of five won a landmark battle for alimony. The old cry of “Islam is in danger” is back, finding takers even among vast sections of educated young Muslims. Swept away in all this are the petitions filed in the apex court by Muslim women seeking to have declared illegal the practices of triple talaq, polygamy and halala – the practice by which a divorced couple cannot remarry unless the woman marries another man, consummates the relationship and her second husband then divorces her.

These petitioners, including the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, do not want a Uniform Civil Code – a common set of laws governing marriage, divorce, succession and adoption that would replace the various religious personal laws. Instead, their petitions mention the desirability of following the method of talaq prescribed by the Quran, which mandates arbitration.

But few Muslim men are willing to make this distinction between the petitions against triple talaq – where the husband can divorce his wife just by uttering the word talaq thrice at one go – and the Law Commission’s questionnaire. Instead, even those who would normally acknowledge that triple talaq is a curse for the community call it a “non-issue hyped up by a Muslim-bashing media”, before discussing the oppression of Hindu women and the important national problems the Supreme Court should spend its time on.

On Saturday, in a slum in the Mumbai suburb of Govandi, Muslim women collecting signatures against triple talaq were surrounded and abused by male members of the community.

According to the 2011 Census, Muslims constitute the largest proportion of divorced women between 19 and 34 years

A survey of 4,710 women across 10 states by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan found that 88% of Muslim women want triple talaq banned. But the survey, whose findings were released in August 2015, has been deemed fake by many young Muslim men. The group itself is under attack. Faizan Mustafa, vice chancellor of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research in Hyderabad, even made personal remarks against its founders on national television on October 18.

Leading the frenzy

Creating this frenzy is the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, just like it did in the aftermath of the Shah Bano verdict. And as it had then, now too, the Urdu press is fuelling the fire, warning its readers that if triple talaq is banned, next in line will be the burqa, meat and even the right to perform namaz. A meeting in Hyderabad on Saturday to support the board’s decision to boycott the Law Commission’s questionnaire was presided over by the editor of the widely-read Urdu daily Siasat.

To oppose the Shah Bano judgement, the board had mobilised massive morchas of men. The pressure had worked, with the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government enacting the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, which sought to restrict maintenance to Muslim women to a period of three months after divorce.

This time, though, the Bharatiya Janata Party rules at the Centre and in eight states, and having Muslim men take over the streets in favour of the Shariat (Islamic law) does not seem such a good idea. So, in Maharashtra, rallies are being taken out ostensibly in support of the demand for reservation, but the mobilisation is against the Uniform Civil Code. Signature campaigns are on in masjids after Friday prayers. Of course, there are no women either at the morchas or masjids.

However, the Muslim Law Board knows that if it wants to defend triple talaq, it needs the support of women. During Shah Bano’s time, groups of burqa-clad women, mostly brought in by the Jamaat-e-Islami, had demonstrated against her. This time, to reach the mass of Muslim women, the patriarchs of the board are resorting to a modern weapon: social media. A WhatsApp message doing the rounds warns “Muslim sisters” not to give their Aadhaar/PAN details to anyone lest they are used to file affidavits against triple talaq.

Slogans and signature forms that read “I reject Uniform Civil Code and do not want any changes in Muslim Personal Law” are being circulated on WhatsApp. “Women bearing Muslim names are carrying out a signature campaign to change the Shariat,” reads a message accompanying the form. “The board wants to impress upon the Supreme Court and the government of India that no Muslim sister wants any change in the Shariat.”

Unfortunately, few of those signing the forms know what the Muslim Law Board has said in its Supreme Court affidavit in defence of triple talaq – that if the practice is done away with, the husband who wants to “get rid of his wife… may resort to illegal criminal ways of getting rid of her by murdering her… or burning her alive… For only he is with her in the darkness of night. He has more chances of covering up his crime. Often do culprits get the benefit of doubt”.

Horrified at this, a young member of a religious organisation called up one of the senior-most leaders of the board to ask for an explanation. What he got instead was an earful. But that did not put him off.

Not willing to be identified, he told this reporter that he continues to believe there is room for reform from within. “Let the threat of the Uniform Civil Code die away, let the Supreme Court defer its decision on triple talaq,” he said, adding that youngsters like him could force the board to change its stand on triple talaq.

Others feel that mass-based organisations that support the Muslim Law Board, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, would have to listen to the voices of younger members who want reform.

Uttar Pradesh poll test

However, with elections in Uttar Pradesh a few months away, it is unlikely these youngsters will get the breather they want. The timing of the Law Commission’s questionnaire, in fact, is perfect for the BJP. The board has played right into its hands by boycotting the questionnaire. Now, the party can claim during its campaign that it gave Muslims the opportunity to participate in a national debate, but they chose to remain separate from the mainstream – all of this, of course, embellished with Hindutva rhetoric.

What also works for the BJP is the Congress backing for the Muslim Law Board. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and the party's chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh, Sheila Dikshit, called on the board president in Lucknow last month. It had begun to seem that Muslims would support Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, seeing how the Samajwadi Party – their traditional favourite – was bitterly divided. That would have made the contest tough for the BJP. But now, the Congress might attract a sizeable section of Muslim votes.

Many Muslims understand the political manoeuvres at play. At least one online group has appealed to community members to fill in the Law Commission's questionnaire and make their voices heard. But who can tell the Muslim Law Board to step back and act with restraint? The framing of a Uniform Civil Code is a long process. The board could choose to bide its time quietly till that happens.

Its unthinking hysteria does not only endanger Muslim women, about whom it cares two hoots. At stake is the future of the entire country, which will be shaped by the results of the elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Surely, the Muslim Law Board has not forgotten the disaster that resulted from its rejection of the Shah Bano judgement – the movement that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid?