In the summer of 1986, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi pushed for the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights Divorce) Act to negate a Supreme Court order (popularly known as the Shah Bano ruling). Over three decades later, in the winter of 2017, his son and newly elected Congress chief Rahul Gandhi was conspicuous by his absence when the Modi government pushed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) legislation ostensibly to implement a Supreme Court verdict.
The contrast couldn’t have been more evident. Not just the Congress, many parties in the Opposition including the Trinamool Congress were very cautious. Indeed, the maximum votes cast for an amendment was four — when the combined strength, if the Opposition had rallied together, could have gone to over 150.
Aware that the issue was a minefield, they wanted to come out of it unscathed without giving the BJP an opportunity to paint the Opposition as “pro-Muslim.” Perhaps that’s why AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi, Indian Union Muslim League’s E T Mohammed Basheer and AIADMK’s Anwar Raajhaa were the only strong voices opposing the Bill but their spirited arguments didn’t have much of an echo in Opposition ranks.
Such was their caution that while Congress members did not vote for the amendments moved by their colleagues, the Trinamool Congress did not even participate in the debate. Those who did, protested feebly. The Congress declared its support to the Bill an hour before it was taken up in Lok Sabha. It, however, wanted the Bill to be referred to a standing committee. The Congress did not rally its ranks to press for votes on a clutch of amendments moved by its members Sushmita Dev and Adhir Ranjan Chaudhury. Only two Opposition members CPM’s A Sampath and Owaisi demanded a division on their amendments. And the votes they received told the story.
Sampath wanted exclusion of the penal provision from the Bill. His amendment got only four votes in support. The Left has 10 members in the House. Only four members of the CPM were present. Some 240 votes were cast to defeat these amendments. With the BJP issuing a whip, the Treasury benches were full in contrast to the sparse Opposition benches. The Congress and some other Opposition parties faced a Catch-22. They did not want to be seen as hostage to Muslim clergy and stalling legislation projected as a historic step to ensure justice to Muslim women. They, in fact, appeared keen not to allow the issue to be turned into a Hindu-Muslim binary. While the BJP saw it as its major achievement in the context of minority gender justice, the Opposition avoided walking into a political trap of the ruling party.
That’s why there was no floor coordination among Congress, Trinamool, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left which are traditionally articulate on minority issues. This was best reflected when the amendments were put to vote. The Samajwadi Party and RJD who always punch above their numbers on the Women’s Reservation Bill didn’t show the same zeal despite a significant section of their Muslim support base wary of BJP’s motives behind the legislation.
Speaker Sumitra Mahajan allowed every member who had given notice objecting to the introduction of the Bill to speak at the time of its moving. There was no such notice from the Congress. Nor from the Trinamool which seeks to project itself as the challenger to the BJP at the national level. The maximum they demanded was referring the bill to the standing committee. The Government, having sensed the tepid opposition, did not yield and saw the Bill sail through.