The assembly results from the Hindi heartland States have so emboldened the Congress party that it is ready to claim as trophy, perhaps its most dishonest piece of legislation since independence. What else would explain the party's Silchar MP Sushmita Dev's claim that the 1986 Shah Bano law of the Rajiv Gandhi government was the most progressive one on empowerment of Muslim women! Dev said so while participating in the debate on the Modi government’s triple talaq bill in Lok Sabha on Thursday.
Her speech needs some detailed quoting first. "Let me put on record, if any law in history of India has given a Muslim woman on divorce the most progressive rights, it's the act that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brought in 1986,’ Dev said. One could have dismissed the boast as misplaced understanding of history by a young-turk of the party, had it not been for what she said subsequently. “…I am not saying this as a Congress parliamentarian…the 1986 Act gives a divorced woman the right to maintenance for her entire lifetime…is also time bound…it must be given in 3 months.” And Dev ended with her cheeky best: “I request the law minister to take a leaf from Rajiv ji’s legislation and define the subsistence…”
Right from its Orwellian name to its motivation, everything was regressive about the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, brought by the Rajiv Gandhi government in response to a strong Ulema-led agitation against the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case. Gandhi used Congress party’s brute majority in both houses of parliament to pass the Act that absolved a Muslim husband of all responsibility beyond the three-month Iddat period prescribed in Muslim personal law. It was the most horrific sacrifice by Rajiv Gandhi of the principles of secularism to preserve Congress’ minority vote bank. One can imagine how repulsive the move must have been to the liberal sentiment that Arif Mohammed Khan preferred to take a stand and quit Rajiv’s ministry.
Some semblance of balance between the secular imperatives of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the regressive 1986 Act was struck by the Supreme Court in the 2001 Danial Latifi case by creatively interpreting the words “fair maintenance” to mean a sum that would help sustain the divorced woman beyond the period of Iddat. It is interesting to note that Congress’ legal light Abhishek Manu Singhvi had appeared for the National Commission for Women in Danial Latifi and argued that the provision of the 1986 Act which limited a husband’s liability to Iddat period be held unconstitutional. Thus, it was not only disingenuous but preposterous of Dev to have claimed credit for the Danial Latifi verdict in her speech in parliament!
That brings me to where I began. Why is it that the same Congress party that allowed an even more stringent version of the triple talaq bill to pass in Lok Sabha in 2017 has now suddenly decided to attempt to filibuster even in the lower house. The cockiness perhaps comes from the Assembly results which saw Congress romp home to power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan earlier this month. Having temple-hopped and succeeded in projecting an equally-Hindu image vis-à-vis the BJP, the principal opposition party feels emboldened enough to reach out to its original vote bank and send a message to the Muslim patriarchy that the original guarantor of their psychological safety is back in business.