Rajiv Gandhi was not the monster he is made out to be for passing the Muslim Women Bill in response to the Supreme Court verdict in Shah Bano case, it wasn’t the greatest disaster India has seen, the shame and blame must stop now.
After almost of a year of on the ground protests by the farmers PM Modi finally withdrew the three Farm laws. Many theories have been floated on what forced his hand to take the decision to retreat from a law which was being hailed as the greatest reforms in agricultural sector. Some commentators believe Modi he did it in “national interest” because the farmers protests were being used by anti-nationals and Khalistanis. BJP leaders have been now hailing the repeal as Modi’s “masterstroke”, a “gift” to the farmers on Guruparab etc. Amidst speculations what is apparent is that it was a response to a people’s movement.
In that context, let me now tell you the story of another Prime Minister and another people’s movement.
In 1985, a similar people’s protest erupted across the country in reaction to the Supreme Court verdict in a petition filed by a 63 year old woman Shah Bano seeking maintenance from her husband under the provisions of Section 125 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973. The Court allowed her petition thereby paving the way for all Muslim women the right to maintenance under the same law.
The verdict was met with widespread protests by orthodox Muslim clergy represented by All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) because they saw it as an attack on their religious freedom. Lakhs of Muslim religious leaders and groups took to streets in protests. Letters, petitions were being written to the Prime Minister to challenge the SC verdict or take other suitable action to assuage the Muslim community’s fear that their personal laws are under attack.
While few remember the exact chain of events but most people in India have heard the narrative that in fear of losing the Muslim vote bank then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brought in a new law titled Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce Act), 1986 to “overturn” the SC verdict. Rajiv Gandhi went in history as the PM who had to bend before the orthodox Muslims and this single incident is still cited as the only example of Congress’ “Muslim appeasement” policy.
The truth however is not so linear or simplistic.
For one, the new law did not “overturn” apex court verdict in so far as it did not take away Muslim women’s right to maintenance. It merely took the matter out of the purview of criminal laws and created a new law under the Sharia Act to provide maintenance. The new law in fact gave Muslim women more security than what Section 125 provides such as the provision that if she cannot provide for herself beyond the iddat period she could approach the magistrate who has the power to direct the Wakf Board for providing the aggrieved woman means of sustenance for her and her dependent children too. These additional measures are not available in Section 125. The Muslim women lost nothing by the passage of the new bill. So nothing damning had actually happened.
Secondly, it is grossly wrong to judge Rajiv Gandhi for what was then the best response he could think of to a people’s protest. It is the duty of the government and the nation’s leader to pay heed to protests and not use brute force to silence them, is it not? What is the right course for the prime minister of a secular nation when the minority community feels their religious freedom have been threatened? Was he supposed to impose UAPA and Sedition on them and shunned them as terrorists and anti-nationals like Modi did to farmers protests, Shaheen Bagh protests and others? The government passed a law which created a balance between Muslim women’s rights and Muslim clerics concerns over their religious freedom. Amidst a violent conflict he found a mid-way. He chose peace over war. People say he was worried about vote bank. But he already had brute majority in Parliament over 400 seats. Vote bank was not the concern. He controlled an orthodox Muslim mob not by appeasing, but by finding legal solution.
It is easy to say, he should not have succumbed to the mob pressure but what should he have done? What was the other path? Nobody can tell.
Lastly, and this one is most ironic, Rajiv Gandhi was not even the person directly responsible for what happened. Multiple first person accounts exist which claim that it was not Rajiv Gandhi who opposed the SC verdict or introduced the new law in the Parliament.
Wajahat Habibullah writes in his memoir, “…M.J. Akbar, then a rising star in journalism, convinced Rajiv that Muslims needed the reassurance that only legislation could bring. This was in direct conflict with the opinion of then minister Arif Mohammed Khan, who had been asked by Rajiv to convince Muslims of the merits of the Supreme Court judgment…”
Academic Radha Kumar writes in her 1993 research paper that the Bill came in the Parliament sponsored by a Muslim League member of Parliament G. M. Banatwala. The Rajiv Gandhi government wanted to oppose the Bill and briefed Arif Mohd Khan to argue against it in Parliament. But Arif Khan diverged from his brief, betrayed the government and delivered an impassioned plea for a humane reading of the Shariat.
While the anecdotes and history seems conflicting, it is a fact that both MJ Akbar and Md Arif Khan today are BJP stooges and there is nothing to speak of their integrity. These were the people advising Rajiv inside Congress.
And outside on the roads the whole country’s orthodox Muslims led by AIMPLB, Jamait-Ul-Ulema-i-Hind, Jamait-e-Islami, Muslim league and others had created a war like situation. Rajiv did what he did. Almost 40 years since, nobody questions the radical and orthodox Muslims for their bigotry but both right wing and so called liberal-seculars continue to vilify and condemn Rajiv Gandhi as if it was the worst thing India ever seen.