Concluding his forceful defence of the bill to outlaw instant triple talaq on December 28, Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar admitted in the Lok Sabha that “criminality” is an issue. He was referring to Section 4 of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, which states: “Whoever pronounces triple talaq upon his wife shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and a fine”. In the Lok Sabha, however, the debate over the problematic provision was muted. With the Opposition failing to close ranks, the Bill sailed through the Lower House. The only point on which there was a semblance of unity among the Opposition was in the demand for sending the Bill to a select committee for wider consultation.
In the Rajya Sabha, less than a week later, the Opposition came together to make this demand much more forcefully. The government, on its part, wanted a discussion on the Bill first and termed the change in the Opposition’s tone as “double standards”. The lack of consensus means that the Bill will now be taken up in the Budget Session that begins on January 29. The government should use the more than three-week-long interregnum to rethink its approach towards the crucial legislation on a fraught issue.
In the debate in both houses of Parliament, the government wielded the argument of women’s empowerment in response to every criticism of the Bill. In the Lok Sabha, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said triple talaq is not an issue that pertains to religion, “but gender justice”. Less than a week later, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, accused the Opposition of “obstructing the path of justice for Muslim women”. The discriminatory nature of triple talaq is undeniable but the government’s approach flattens out a complex issue that has more than one dimension. For example, fears that the criminality provision could be misused are not unfounded in a milieu where Muslims have become targets of violence. These apprehensions appear even more grave because the Bill makes triple talaq “a cognisable offence”. In other words, a police officer can arrest an accused without a warrant. And, the complainant can be any informant — not just the wife.
Thorough legislative scrutiny is the first step towards building safeguards against such misuse. The deliberations in the Rajya Sabha have underscored that the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill needs more fine-tuning. The government should not short circuit due legislative process in its haste to score political points.