India’s ruling Hindu right wing is using doublespeak
The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that presently leads the coalition government in India and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are frequently accused of a politics laced with hypocrisy, deceit and doublespeak. Both frequently speak and act in ways that prove their critics right. This should not be surprising from a party that pretends to be the exact opposite of what it really is. It participates in India’s democratic process even while remaining rooted in an ideology and organization—the RSS—wedded to the authoritarian agenda of turning secular India into a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu State).
A good example of such double standards in its supposed concern for women’s rights and gender justice has been evident in the past 15 months against the backdrop of two path-breaking orders passed by the Supreme Court, invoking “constitutional morality” to uphold the principles of gender parity and non-discrimination. In August 2017, a five-judge Constitution bench of the apex court declared the practice of “triple talaq” as “invalid.” (Triple talaq is a practice whereby a Muslim husband can instantly divorce his wife by simply uttering, or even texting, the words “talaq, talaq, talaq” [“divorce, divorce, divorce”]). In September 2017, another five-judge Constitution bench ruled the right of Hindu women to enter the famed Sabarimala temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala. (According to a century-old practice, the temple authorities bar women of menstruating age to worship at the temple of the ostensibly ‘celibate’ god, Lord Ayyappa.) However, there is a dispute about the origin of this so-called ‘ancient’ practice. Adivasis, India’s indigenous peoples, had few such taboos, and this temple, before caste appropriation, was one of the indigenous deities.
On the issue of triple talaq, the ruling BJP has been in an overdrive, posturing as the sole custodian of the rights of “our Muslim sisters,” eager to give further teeth to the Supreme Court’s verdict by passing a new law in Parliament. On the issue of temple entry, however, it invokes the matter of faith, even going to the extent of insinuating the highest court in the land is insensitive to “Hindu religious sentiments.”
In 2016, several Muslim women victims of triple talaq, supported by a number of Muslim women’s organizations, petitioned the Supreme Court calling for a ban on the practice of triple talaq, nikah halala (which stipulates that a divorced Muslim woman can be reunited with her husband only if she marries another man, consummates the marriage and then gets divorced from him overnight) and polygamy. The patriarchal of ulema of Indian Islam under the banner of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) claim that these blatantly unjust, inhuman and anti-women practices are immutable “Allah-given laws” that can never be changed. But for decades, progressive Muslim women and men have argued that apart from being unconstitutional, these practices are also un-Quranic.
In May 2017, the Supreme Court decided that a five-member Constitution bench will deal with the issue of triple talaq first and address the issues of nikah halala and polygamy on a later date. In a 29-page affidavit filed before the apex court in October 2016, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government argued as follows:
“It is submitted that gender equality and dignity of women are non-negotiable, overarching constitutional values and can brook no compromise.
“These rights are necessary in letter and in spirit not only to realise the aspirations of every individual woman who is an equal citizen of this country but also for the larger well-being of the society.
“It is respectfully submitted that no ‘undesirable’ practice can be elevated to the status of an ‘essential religious practice,’ much less one that forms the substratum of religion.
“It is submitted that gender justice is a constitutional goal of overwhelming importance and magnitude without accomplishing which half of the country’s citizenry are unable to enjoy the fullest, the rights, the status and opportunities available under the Constitution to every citizen of India regardless of her religious or other affiliations.”
In August 2017, the Supreme Court passed an order “setting aside” the practice of triple talaq. What this meant was that henceforth, divorcing a Muslim woman by simply stating “talaq, talaq, talaq” was no longer valid. The verdict of the highest court in the land was welcomed as “historic” by all progressive and secular-minded people. The AIMPLB, however, took the position that notwithstanding the verdict of the apex court, the triple talaq practice remained valid according to the sharia (Islamic law).
The Narendra Modi-led government too welcomed the judgment. It soon became evident that the BJP’s response to the motive had less to do with gender justice and more to do with its own communal agenda. While welcome, the Supreme Court’s verdict had left Muslim women in an ambiguous situation. As some Muslim husbands, emboldened by the AIMPLB’s stand, resorted to “talaq, talaq, talaq,” ignoring the Supreme Court’s order, women victims who approached the police found the latter expressing their inability to help. The police said they did not know under which law they could act against the errant husband.
Lawyers advising Muslim women were veering around the view that following the Supreme Court verdict a new law could be passed that would treat triple talaq as amounting to domestic violence as defined under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. This is a secular legislation wherein domestic violence is treated as a civil matter and is aimed at ensuring a wide range of speedy reliefs to women. The wide-ranging definition of domestic violence under the Act includes “physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and mental abuse, and economic abuse.” Under the Act, a husband is given a chance to mend his ways. It however has the additional merit that non-compliance with the court’s order is treated as a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment for up to one year plus a fine of up to Rs. 20,000.
Even while a consensus was emerging on the issue, with a communal agenda in mind, the Modi government chose to rush a stringent bill—the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017—in December 2017 during the winter session of Parliament. The proposed enactment made triple talaq a cognizable, non-bailable criminal offense punishable with imprisonment for up to three years plus a fine. There was absolutely no effort made at consulting the various stakeholders: not even Muslim women’s groups or the opposition parties. Not surprisingly, the draconian bill faced strong opposition from most Muslim women’s groups and political parties. Using its majority in the lower house, the bill was steamrolled through the Lok Sabha (equivalent to the American Congress) but was stalled in the Rajya Sabha (equivalent to the American Senate) where the ruling alliance lacks a majority.
Even as the bill remained pending in the Rajya Sabha, in September this year, the Modi government passed an ordinance—the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Ordinance, 2018—and followed it up with a revised bill with minor amendments in the Lok Sabha. On December 27, the new bill was once again through the Lok Sabha. However, it will almost certainly be stalled yet again in the Rajya Sabha. The communal motives behind the BJP’s seemingly dogged determination to “ensure justice” to “our Muslim sisters” are evident. One, it wants to send out a message that while the BJP alone is committed to gender justice, the opposition parties are engaging in Muslim male “appeasement.” Two, while the proclaimed objective is to ensure justice to “our Muslim sisters,” the hidden agenda is pursuit of an insidious “unite Hindus, divide Muslims” strategy of the Hindu right wing.
The hypocritical stance of the BJP and the RSS on the question of gender justice is evident from its diametrically opposed responses to the verdicts of the Supreme Court in the triple talaq case and the Sabarimala temple case. In the former, the Hindu right-wing bodies appear to be full of concern for “Muslim sisters,” while in the latter case, justice for “Hindu sisters” is the last thing on their mind.
In its 4-1 verdict delivered on September 28 this year, a five-judge Constitution bench ruled that banning entry to Sabarimala temple by women of menstruating age is gender discrimination, which violates the fundamental rights of Hindu women. In 2016, the RSS general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi had stated that barring women from Sabarimala made no sense even if it was in the name of a thousand-year-old custom. However, sensing an opportunity to communally polarize Kerala for political gains, none less than the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat did a U-turn. In his annual “Vijayadashami” address at the RSS headquarter in Nagpur in mid-October, he bemoaned the fact that the Supreme Court’s verdict has created “divisiveness” in society. He added that questions such as “why only the Hindu society experiences such repeated and brazen onslaughts on its symbols of faith” obviously arise in the public’s mind and lead to unrest. “Nowhere in the world, healthy and peaceful social life has ever thrived and can thrive merely based on laws and fear of punishment.” (Bhagwat obviously saw no need to advise Prime Minister Modi similarly on the issue of a law on triple talaq.)
From the RSS chief’s statement, it would appear that he was merely empathizing with the Hindus of Kerala who were agitating against the apex court’s verdict. But the cat was soon out of the bag; it’s now beyond a doubt that in fact it is the BJP itself that has been responsible for instigating the agitation and violence in Kerala with an obvious political motive.
The BJP found itself in hot water when in early November a video of a speech by none other than the BJP’s president in Kerala, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, over the Sabarimala issue went viral. In the video, Pillai can be heard boasting that the ruckus created by Ayyappa devotees at Sabarimala against the Supreme Court order was a BJP agenda. Addressing BJP workers at a Yuva Morcha meeting in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, he gloated: “Everyone fell into the agenda we had put forward... the agitation in the Malayalam month was almost planned by the BJP. I told him [temple priest] you are not alone. This won’t be contempt of court. If there is contempt of court, then it will be first against us. There will be tens of thousands of people with you.... Sabarimala issue is a golden issue for us.”
As if that’s not bad enough, on November 23, the news portal Scroll reported:
“The Bharatiya Janata Party is facing a crisis of credibility in Kerala. As if the Hindutva party’s constantly shifting position on the Sabarimala row was not damaging enough, a document has been leaked detailing its ‘secret plan’ to disrupt the peak pilgrimage season at the shrine.
“While commentators in the media are citing this as evidence that the party’s only interest in Sabarimala is to use it as a tool for electoral gains, political rivals are accusing it of fomenting communal unrest.
“Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan claimed the leaked document reveals the Sangh Parivar’s ‘heinous design to do kar seva at Sabarimala’. ‘The BJP has issued the circular asking its cadres to move to Sabarimala,’ he said. ‘They want to mobilise people to take over the hill shrine through a kar seva’”.
Believe it if you will: The Hindu right wing’s commitment to gender parity is limited to ensuring justice to “our Muslim sisters.” As for justice to “Hindu sisters,” it’s faith-cum-political opportunism that must take precedence.
In an unusual grassroots mobilization, Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has taken the issue of cultural choice to the people, ensuring that the far right does not dominate the discourse.
Not giving in to the pressure of protests, the LDF government is firm on its decision that the government is duty-bound to implement the Supreme Court order. “I will not allow the Sangh Parivar to make Sabarimala into another Ayodhya. There is a concerted bid to defame the state citing Sabarimala,” said Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
The one million women wall on the New Year’s Day to prevent the state from “sliding back into medieval madness” was spectacular and a promising start to the New Year. To quote the popular left front chief minister, “This is against the attempts to destroy the renaissance values and to spread awareness to people. The various communities are joining hands to make a big intervention that the country should make note of, and understand that Kerala society cannot be sent back to the old dark ages by anyone; we will not allow that,” he said.
But coming back to India’s far right, is there no limit to Hindutva’s hypocrisy?
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.