By Jaishree Balasubramanian
India’s cabinet approved a decree setting prison terms for Muslim men who instantly divorce their wives by uttering the word “talaq” three times, officials said Wednesday, as critics belittled the move as a ploy by the Hindu nationalist-led government to woo women voters.
The country’s Supreme Court last year outlawed the practice known as triple talaq, which is common among India’s minority Muslims. It allows a husband to legally divorce his wife by stating “talaq” – the Arabic word for divorce – three times in oral, written or electronic form.
“The cabinet has passed the ‘triple talaq’ ordinance,” Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told a news conference. “There was an overpowering urgency and a compelling necessity to bring the ordinance as the practice continued unabated despite the Supreme Court order.”
The ordinance, which requires the signature of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in order to take effect, makes the practice a nonbailable offense and violators could face up to three years in prison, officials said.
The proposed law would allow a magistrate to grant bail, but only after “hearing the wife” in a case, Prasad said. It also empowers a woman to approach a magistrate and seek subsistence allowance for herself and her minor children.
The decree came months ahead of a general election expected in April or May next year.
Analysts said the decree could bolster support from Muslim women for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has struggled to eradicate perceptions that it is against minorities.
About 14 percent of the nation’s 1.3 billion residents are Muslims. The country is about 80 percent Hindu, according to census data.
But the ordinance also drew criticism from women activists, senior Muslim leaders and the main opposition Congress Party, which accused the government of treating the issue “more as a political football than a matter of justice to Muslim women.”
Khushboo Sunder, spokeswoman for the Congress Party, said triple talaq had to be banned, but questioned the timing of the cabinet’s decree.
“The apex court had held it null and void last year,” she said. “Why didn’t the government immediately bring in the decree?”
Asaduddin Owaisi, an influential Muslim member of parliament, tweeted that the triple talaq ordinance was unconstitutional and against Muslim women.
“In Islam, marriage is a civil contract and bringing penal provisions in it was wrong,” he said during an interview with a local TV station.
Ishrat Jahan, a petitioner in a triple talaq case, told a local TV channel that her husband had divorced her over the phone when he was in Dubai in 2014 by merely saying “talaq” three times.
“The triple talaq ordinance is a welcome step, I am very happy the government has taken such a decision,” she said.
The use of triple talaq in India has been a subject of controversy. The custom is banned in Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
‘Abandonment, not divorce’
Women’s advocacy groups also condemned the government’s decision to make triple talaq a penal offense.
Kavita Krishnan, activist and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, questioned “why only Muslim men should be punished for abandoning their wives and not Hindu men.”
Triple talaq means abandonment, not divorce, Krishnan said.
“We do not agree with the government’s decision to make it a criminal offence,” she said.
The triple talaq issue grabbed headlines in 2015 when Shayara Banu, a Muslim, filed a petition seeking an end to the practice. Her husband ended their 15-year marriage by sending her a letter with the word talaq written three times.
Influential Muslim groups including All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, which had opposed the ban on triple talaq, could not be reached for comment.
But Mohammad Wali Rahmani, AIMPLB’s general secretary, had previously told BenarNews that triple talaq was “a fundamental right of every India citizen, according to the constitution.”