The ongoing litigation before the Supreme Court between those fighting for the protection of an ossified personal law, triple talaq, and those who want to go beyond discriminatory customs is at the heart of the struggle for a “New India”. The choices before us, as citizens who want a progressive, liberal, democratic India, are very clear and it is time that we come down decisively for a more equitable and egalitarian republic.
A few things need to be understood before we address the question of personal law and women’s rights. First, the dispute is not about any specific religion or community, it is about women from all communities. Second, the dispute is not a question of religion, as some people are trying to make it out, but it is a question that relates to the kind of society we want to see in India.
To create a nation is not an easy task, especially in a country like ours that is composed of thousands of communities. However, when all of us decided to progress on a journey to create a nation, we also agreed to create a country that would accord equal treatment to all its citizens. We realised that without “justice, liberty, equality and fraternity,” our journey was going to be hurdled by the grievances of the past.
These ideals were the moving spirit of our independence movement. They are also explicit and implicit in our Constitution. A socially just society cannot be created unless women’s rights are protected and promoted. A country where half its citizens are not as empowered as the other half is a society that is handicapped in several ways.
The state’s duty is to remove the fetters which bind the disadvantaged; in our society, the most disempowered in every community are women. In our country, women are encumbered in several ways. The most important points of discrimination against women are in our families. It is in families that discrimination between boys and girls is hammered into the social system. It is, therefore, important that any changes with the purpose of creating a more equal society should root themselves in correcting this imbalance within the family. The promotion of women’s rights and the protection of women’s interests within family law is therefore crucial in this nation-building project. Personal law reform is just the first of numerous steps we need to take to create a truly just society.
We have seen how, globally, women’s interests have been protected through legislation and through interventions in personal laws. Whether it is Turkey or Iran, the protection of women’s rights has been the cornerstone of revolutionary changes in old societies. In many ways, creating an equal family, or, at the very least, an equitable family is the key to creating an equitable society.
It can be nobody’s case that women are any less capable than men. History has answered that question. Women are today working shoulder-to-shoulder with men in every field. The reality of today is fundamentally different compared to that of the past. When B.R. Ambedkar decided to push for the rights of women within the family in Hindu personal law, he received such great resistance that he had to resign from the Union cabinet.
However, today, history has proved him to be correct. The fundamental choice before the Supreme Court, and all those who are participating in the great debate before it, is to decide where they position themselves at the time when the bells toll. History will hold them to that choice, however much they may choose to nuance their arguments now or in the future. Whatever may be their views, they should realise that with respect to triple talaq — which everybody agrees is discriminatory to women — the question is not about granting extra rights or privileges to women.
History has already answered that question; in any case, it is not for us to “give” but to recognise the discrimination against women. The issue is about recognising that an equal and just society should be the basis of the “New India”.