ON A day when Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad introduced the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 — which makes talaq-e-biddat or instant triple talaq a “cognisable and non-bailable offence” — in the Rajya Sabha, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday said the Bill was “defective” and “politically motivated”, and would not serve the interest of Muslim women. Speaking on the Bill for the first time, Banerjee said, “We never opposed the proposed Bill on instant triple talaq because we are in favour of protection of Muslim women. There are people in the Muslim community who abide by the laws and customs of their religion. They don’t believe in such practices. Despite this, the BJP has brought forward a defective Bill. Instead of giving protection to Muslim women, they are doing politics with the Bill. Muslim women will face a lot of trouble once this Bill is passed. We don’t want Muslim women to face any injustice, but this is a politically motivated Bill.”
Banerjee was addressing a public meeting at Amodpur in Birbhum district. “We want protection of Muslim women, Hindu women and Christian women. We are sensitive while addressing issues concerning women. But we will not keep quiet if a defective Bill is passed with an aim to change the law,” she said. While the Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha last week, a united Opposition stalled a debate on it in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. As soon as Prasad introduced the Bill, Trinamool Congress member Sukhendu Sekhar Ray moved an amendment for referring it to a select committee. Congress leader Anand Sharma then demanded that the Bill be sent to a select committee comprising 17 members, including Renuka Chowdhury, K Rahman Khan, Vivek Tankha (all Congress), A Navaneethakrishnan (AIADMK), Derek O’Brien (TMC), Tiruchi Siva (DMK), Javed Ali Khan (SP), Satish Chandra Misra (BSP), Majeed Memon (NCP), K K Ragesh (CPI-M), C M Ramesh (TDP), Misha Bharti (RJD), Prasanna Acharya (BJD), Abdul Wahab (IUML), Sanjiv Kumar (JMM) and K T S Tulsi (nominated).
Leader of the House Arun Jaitley resorted to the rule book to argue that both amendments moved by Ray and Sharma were not admissible as they had not followed procedure. He pointed out that the proposed select committee did not have any BJP member. However, Deputy Chairman P J Kurien ruled that both amendments had been allowed by Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu. Citing the Supreme Court judgment to underline the “urgency”, Jaitley said, “The judges said there is a moratorium on triple talaq for six months but the legislature should bring a law. That six-month period comes to an end on February 22.” When Congress leader Kapil Sibal tried to make the point that Jaitley had quoted from the minority judgment, and he was privy to the details as he had represented the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in the case, Prasad, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal and Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani were on their feet, shouting.
“He represented the personal law board, he should not be allowed to speak on the Bill as there is conflict of interest,” said Prasad. The ministers, including Jaitley, targeted Congress for supporting the Bill in the Lok Sabha but changing its stand in the Rajya Sabha. With Opposition leaders remaining on the floor, Prasad could not speak on the Bill. When he insisted that he should be allowed to speak, Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said a minister could speak before introducing a Bill, but not after doing so. Kurien said this was a mere technicality. But Opposition benches remained noisy, and Prasad failed to get more than a few words in. At one point, he accused the Opposition of deliberately blocking the Bill. Azad countered that the Opposition wanted to pass a Bill which has cleared the test of legislative scrutiny. Amid the din, Kurien threatened to adjourn the House, but Azad said, “Don’t adjourn, let’s have division”.
As the war of words continued, Sharma challenged the government to bring the Women’s Reservation Bill if it was so committed to the welfare of women. Kurien finally adjourned the House for the day, without giving any ruling on the validity of the Opposition’s motion on the select panel. In the Lok Sabha last week, Opposition parties like the RJD, AIMIM, BJD, IUML and AIADMK objected when the Bill was being introduced. But the Opposition parties did not rally together at the time the Bill was taken up for voting at the end of the discussion. The Congress did not even give notice to oppose introduction of the Bill and the Trinamool Congress did not participate in the discussion.
The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 has provisions of “imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and fine” for any Muslim man who divorces his wife by uttering talaq three times in quick succession. It also provides for “subsistence allowance” to Muslim women and custody of minor children as “may be determined by the magistrate”. The government drafted the Bill after the Supreme Court, in a landmark 3-2 verdict on August 22, set aside the practice of talaq-e-biddat. Three of five judges on the Constitution Bench — Justices Rohinton F Nariman, Uday U Lalit and Kurian Joseph — called the practice un-Islamic and “arbitrary” and disagreed with the view that triple talaq was an integral part of religious practice. But the minority ruling of then Chief Justice of India J S Khehar and Justice S Abdul Nazeer, while underlining the primacy of Muslim personal law, said the practice enjoyed constitutional protection and was beyond the scope of judicial scrutiny. They were of the view that Parliament should consider an “appropriate” law to deal with the issue of talaq-e-biddat.