Both the All India Shia Personal Law Board and the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board were set up in Lucknow around the same time — in 2005. The two new boards were distinct from the existing custodian of Muslim personal law in India — the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — and appeared to address different and discrete constituencies within the community: Shia Muslims and Muslim women.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board was set up in 1973, the trigger being a fear that Muslim identities were being scrubbed, and that the promise that Muslims would be able to practise their faith in full pursuit of Article 25, was under threat.
Muslim insecurities, rising since the early 1960s, had spiked especially after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964. This was the time that communal riots, especially in Jabalpur and Ranchi, had resurfaced after a long time. It was also the time when, the AIMPLB web site records, the “Government of India was trying to subvert Shariah law… through parallel legislation. Adoption Bill had been tabled in Parliament. Mr H R Gokhle, then Union Law Minister, had termed this Bill as the first step towards Uniform Civil Code.”
As the AIMPLB sought to weld Indian Muslims together, bringing all sects under one umbrella, Shias, although far smaller in population than Sunnis but more influential than their numbers indicated, were well represented in the Board. That situation has not changed — and Lucknow-based Kalbe Sadiq and Kalbe Jawwad, and other Delhi and Hyderabad-based Shia clerics continue to be members of the Board.
Differences in Shia and Sunni family laws and “indifference” of the umbrella Board were cited as reasons for the emergence of the Shia Board. At the time of its formation in 2005, Maulana Mohammed Athar, founder president of the All India Shia Personal Law Board, told the BBC, “It was time that we stood for our rights. We have formed a forum of ourselves because the AIMPLB never took interest in our well being.” Members of the breakaway group expressed scepticism over the way the AIMPLB was being run.
But the constitution of the Board set up in 2005 did not match the seriousness and stature of those in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Said a member about the Shia Board, “Just look at the meetings and the proceedings, and those who constitute the new Board”. Doubts about its politics, and why it was felt necessary to break away, remain the dominant theme of any discussion about the ‘new’ Board.
When it split from the umbrella Board, the Shia Board had 69 members, and the support of the former ruling Shia family of Lucknow. The AIMPLB at the time had 204 members. The positioning of a set of lesser-known clerics as alternate voices against Kalbe Sadiq and Kalbe Jawwad signalled an intent to undercut the influence of the umbrella body in the affairs of Indian Muslims. This was significant because Shia-Sunni political faultlines have never been deep or sharp in India — except perhaps in Lucknow, where trouble has been reported around celebrations. It is, then, no surprise that it was in Lucknow that the Shia Board came up.
The Shia Board’s support for a ban on cow slaughter, its call to the central government to enact a law to ban triple talaq, and its endorsement of the Supreme Court’s suggestion to settle the Ayodhya dispute outside courts, run counter some of the AIMPLB’s flagship political concerns. The AIMPLB, which came to attention nationally in the late 1980s in the context of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, is today a litigant in a range of matters including those related to Ayodhya and Muslim marriage and divorce, and especially triple talaq.
On the Shia Board’s support for the cow-slaughter ban, supposedly based on a fatwa by a Iraq-based Shia cleric, a Lucknow-based member of the AIMPLB, Khalid Firangimahli, said, “One should not change one’s opinion based on who is in power in Delhi. It has been a widely accepted and acknowledged belief for hundreds of years amongst leading Muslim elite in India, that where the law says clearly, like in North India, that there must not be cow slaughter, there should be none. Even Emperor Akbar instructed his sons to be careful. All laws must be respected. But will the government move to ban cow slaughter in Goa and the Northeast too?
“What the Shia Board spokesman has said is nothing very unusual. It is something that has been accepted by all of us — that the law must be followed. But it is being twisted to push sizeable sections of Indians, mostly Muslims, against the wall by making such statements now. This kind of politics is not good politics,” Firangimahli said.
The Indian Express had on Thursday reported the statement of Maulana Ejaz Athar of the Shia Board, who said that a fatwa against cow slaughter had also been issued by a Shia cleric in India “around 40 or 50 years ago”, and that “a person should follow the laws of the country where he lives”.
While the AIMPLB is seen as largely oppositional to the values of the VHP and the BJP/RSS, there is no such positioning in the Shia Muslim Personal Law Board. Yasoob Abbas, the Shia Board’s chief spokesperson, had backed the BJP in the recent elections, and is seen to be close to the party, and especially to Home Minister and Lucknow MP Rajnath Singh. Members of the older personal law boards note that he has been part of Muslim delegations to the Prime Minister “at least thrice”. To the old guard, the battles of the All India Shia Personal Law Board and the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board are directed more at breaking with the larger umbrella body than at addressing purportedly unaddressed concerns.
Said Lucknow-based Zafaryab Jilani, legal counsel for the AIMPLB, “It is easy for them (the Shia Board) to take positions on triple talaq and nikah halala, as the particular sect they come from don’t recognise it. Within the larger Muslim Personal Law Board, there are several sections, like the Ahle Hadees, that do not agree with triple talaq. But some sects do. So we need to take a more measured view.”