The Monsoon Session of Parliament concluded on August 10 without any meaningful discussion in the Rajya Sabha on the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill. However, the Bill that seeks to outlaw triple talaq is now a significantly watered down version of the legislation passed by the Lok Sabha in December 2017. Last week, the government introduced amendments that deal with the Bill’s most contentious section — its criminality provision. An FIR will now be cognisable only if the complaint is filed by the victim, the wife, her blood relatives or relatives by marriage. And, if the wife and husband want to settle their differences, the magistrate can “compound the offence”. In a milieu where Muslims are becoming more vulnerable and targets of intolerance, and even acts of violence, this change is a salutary climbdown from the original clause which allowed anyone to file a complaint. Another amendment that allows a magistrate to grant bail to the accused is also welcome for mitigating the stridency of the original legislation — it had made triple talaq a completely non-bailable offence.
In the debate in Parliament during the last Winter Session — the Bill wasn’t taken up in the Budget Session — the government had wielded the argument of women’s empowerment in response to every criticism of the legislation. The imperatives of gender justice are indeed compelling. But the socio-political climate in the country has given rise to genuine fears that the triple talaq issue is another ruse for stamping majoritarianism. Instead of being sensitive to such apprehensions, the government had accused the Bill’s critics of “obstructing the path of justice for Muslim women”. However, last week, while introducing the amendments, Union Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the government “does not want anyone to misuse the law while ensuring that justice is done”. The government should now amplify the message in this statement — it must continue speaking to both the complexity of the issue as well as its fraught political milieu.
By all accounts, the amendments have not taken care of the Opposition’s reservations on the Bill. However, the Opposition has also not specified its disagreement with the reframed Bill. It has not said if the amendments adequately address its concerns about the criminality clause. The changes were introduced on the penultimate day of the Monsoon Session, leaving the Rajya Sabha with scarcely any time to debate the matter. When the Upper House takes up the issue in the Winter Session, the Opposition must be careful not to let principled positions degenerate into political point-scoring. On its part, the government must resist any urge to short-circuit legislative processes. The complexity of the issue of triple talaq demands that the Bill in its new avatar is debated threadbare in Parliament.