Thursday saw a rare performance in the Lok Sabha when members actually debated an issue vigorously. The lower house of India’s parliament was discussing the passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill that seeks to outlaw the Muslim practice of instant triple talaq, a form of oral, unilateral divorce practiced by men among most sects of Islam.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the practice was unconstitutional. Later that year, the Modi government introduced a bill in Parliament seeking to criminalise the act with a jail term of up to three years. When it proved unable to secure a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the bill was postponed and the Union government passed an ordinance to that effect instead. The bill was brought back to the Lok Sabha on Thursday and passed. It will be tabled in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday even as the Opposition seeks to have it sent to a select committee.
Here are the most interesting speeches from the Lok Sabha debate:
For the bill
Speaking on behalf of the government, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad argued that the bill was about the respect of both faith as well as women. Reacting to criticism that the bill was liable to be misused, Prasad said that the government had listened to concerns and had amended the bill. “Only the victim or her relatives can file a case; we put in provisions for reconciliation; the magistrate can order bail after listening to the wife,” said Prasad. “We don’t want to victimise anybody.”
Prasad reacted to arguments that the act of instant triple talaq should not be criminalised: “Did this House not institute the death penalty for the rape of a child? Did we not criminalise dowry?”
Another Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Meenakshi Lekhi argued that men and women have different attitudes towards marriage. “The people who are arguing against this Bill should remember, no women wants to get divorced. I say this as a woman. We think that marriage lasts a lifetime. We speak about marriage, not of divorce,” said Lekhi. “Men, on the other hand, have been seen to divorce women over most trivial cases.”
Lekhi also made her argument using the literalist Salafi or Wahabi doctrine of Islam. “In Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, this is not allowed nor is is allowed in countries where Islam is the state religion but amazingly this is allowed in a secular country like India”, she said.
Opposed to the bill
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi’s speech during the debate went viral. In it, he compared the stand taken by the government on Sabrimala, where the Supreme Court order on allowing women inside the temple has remained a dead letter, to that on triple talaq. “When the Sabarimala judgment was delivered, then you speak about faith. Don’t Muslims have their faith? Your faith is faith, but my faith is not faith?” said Owaisi. “Is this not a violation of culture? Is this not a violation of Article 29 of Constitution (protection of minority rights)?”
Owaisi questioned the criminalisation of the act arguing that it will be used to target Muslims. “The SC has decriminalised homosexuality. You are criminalising triple talaq… Why is this being done?” he asked.
Owaisi also raised the paradox of criminalising something that has no impact since after the judgment of the2017 Supreme Court, a marriage does not get annulled due to the pronouncement of instant triple talaq.
Congress MP Sushmita Dev argued that the government’s claim that it was empowering Muslim women was inaccurate. Instead, what the bill actually did was to penalise Muslim men. “We oppose the criminalisation of a civil matter,” she argued.
Congress MP Ranjeet Ranjan asked how the bill was going to help women if the former husband, who is supposed to provide alimony, finds himself in jail. She also argued that the excessive formalities present in the law would be inaccessible to the vast majority of poor and often poorly educated women.