Days after they put up little or no resistance in Lok Sabha to the passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill which outlaws talaq-e-biddat or instant triple talaq, Opposition parties changed tactics and joined hands Wednesday to stall a debate on the Bill in Rajya Sabha and demanded that it be sent to a select committee.
The show of strength by the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, where it outnumbers the ruling coalition, drew a sharp response from the government.
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad accused the Congress of “political hypocrisy” and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who is also Leader of the House, called it a “sham”.
“The whole country is watching that in the other House, you supported the Bill, and in this House, you are trying to derail the Bill,” he said in the House. He later told reporters, “Today was a golden opportunity for Parliament to end the injustice happening with Muslim women… this injustice will carry on due to this attitude of the Congress party”.
Unlike its muted opposition in Lok Sabha, where its member K C Venugopal had not even sought a division on his amendment to the Bill, the Congress was vociferous in its demand to send the Bill to a select committee. It cited the “brute majority” the BJP-led government enjoys in Lok Sabha and the “united Opposition” in Rajya Sabha to justify the change in its approach.
If the Congress approach was different, the Trinamool Congress had a change of heart. In Lok Sabha, it had not even participated in the debate and voting. But on Wednesday, Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the Bill was “defective” and “politically motivated”, and would not serve the interest of Muslim women.
Addressing a public meeting at Amodpur in Birbhum district, 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 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.”
Trinamool Congress sources said there were two options before it in Rajya Sabha — one was to push for legislative scrutiny, the other was to “make a fiery speech and walk out”. Party leaders claimed the silence in the Lok Sabha was part of a “deliberate strategy”.
“We started strategising two days before Lok Sabha took up the Bill. We knew they had a brute majority there, so we could not do anything. The match was really in Rajya Sabha, so we did our homework well,” a Trinamool Congress leader said.
In Lok Sabha where such an option was not available, the party chose to keep quiet rather than choose from one of two options — take a clear stand in favour of the Bill and alienate powerful Muslim clerics of Bengal who have traditionally thrown their weight behind Banerjee or oppose it and be branded “anti women”.
In Rajya Sabha, where Opposition members turned up in full strength, Anand Sharma of Congress and Sukhendushekhar Roy of Trinamool Congress moved amendments to refer the Bill to a select committee. Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad even asked the Chair to go for division (voting) on the Opposition demand for a select committee referral. Party leaders said there was “late realisation” that it cannot allow a “flawed” Bill to be passed.
Moreover, parties like the TDP, AIADMK and BJD conveyed to the Congress that they will go along with the demand for a select committee referral. “There is an overwhelming majority in our favour,” Azad said.
Later, Azad told The Indian Express that in the past too, the Opposition in Rajya Sabha had referred to select committee Bills which had not been to a standing committee by Lok Sabha. On Trinamool Congress, he said: “Each political party did not take any stand, knowing that the government has a brute majority… This is not only about this Bill. All Bills which were sent to the select committee earlier were those Bills which were not sent to the standing committee.”
He said the Congress was not against the Bill. “We are against some provisions of the Bill. Some of the provisions in the Bill are anti-women. Instead of doing justice for the women, they are creating problems for the women… What is the contribution of the BJP in this? Triple talaq was made null and void by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had asked the government to come up with a law…”
“Both these things were done by the Supreme Court. What is it that the BJP or the government has done for Muslim women? Whatever they have done beyond the Supreme Court direction will in a way do total injustice to women… putting her husband, the bread-winner of the family, in jail, without bail, and no provision in the Bill for the subsistence of the woman till the husband is in jail… they are punishing Muslim women,” he said.
The proposed law, which makes talaq-e-biddat a “cognizable and non-bailable offence”, 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”.