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The Triple Talaq Judgment And Gender Emancipation As Vote-Bank Politics

The good old reformist card.

22/08/2017 7:49 PM IST | Updated 22/08/2017 7:49 PM IST
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

With India's highest court finally outlawing the tradition of triple talaq, or instant divorce through verbal enunciation, we as a society have arrived at a crucial milestone of gender emancipation. Our judiciary has set a remarkable precedent for not just our own country, but also others. Intriguingly, this landmark judicial proclamation comes after more than three years of intense political activism by the day's government to revoke the regressive social practice. In fact, it was a key component in the ruling party's electoral agenda.

Seems like the Indian state is finally coming to terms with gender discrimination. Or is it?

In all modern societies that operate within the Westphalian-Hobbesian rubric, "gender" is political and "politics" is gendered. This is true for both conservative, autocratic polities and liberal, electoral democracies. While the former generally treats gender as either a bonded subject of the state or a stoic reality, the latter provides the space to tinker with it within a setup of popular legitimacy. In both, the common thread is the functional, and not absolute, nature of gender.

For the Indian polity, gender has been the quintessential low-hanging fruit that comes to rescue when hunger for seats strikes.

In India (like most other contemporary multicultural societies), "gender" is a notch above "political": it is communal. As a construct, it has different cultural moorings but the same realities: hierarchy, control, oppression and subversion. The Hindu woman's experience of social discrimination might be structurally dissimilar to that of a Muslim woman's, but normatively, both face discrimination. Similarly, the Hindu man might discriminate against women in slightly different ways compared to his Muslim counterpart, but both carry the same gender privileges.

But, what is perhaps more intriguing is how these realities have changed shape across the colonial and postcolonial periods when the "Indian State" was coming into being. In the colonial period, gender shared an ambiguous relationship with the state, evinced by the fact that most of the radical reforms—like the abolishment of sati—were undertaken only when pressure from certain progressive quarters mounted. With independence and the ushering in of a liberal democracy, this relationship became much more complex. In other words, it became political and thus, instrumental.

The Congress-Sangh binary, which forms the nucleus of India's national politics, contains this complexity of the state-gender street. Both political schools (if we may call them so) have viewed gender through identitarian lenses. The debate over the Hindu Code Bill right after independence is suggestive of this.

Out of concerns of disparaging the Muslim minority that had just chosen to remain in India, Nehru refused to reform Muslim personal laws—however regressive they were—while affirmatively intervening in Hindu laws through the Hindu Code Bill. On the other hand, the opposition, that is the Hindu right wing, vehemently opposed this. The latter eventually reconciled with reformation of traditional Hindu laws, but continued to argue for similar reforms within Muslim personal laws. Thanks to the Congress's minority-centric approach to electoral politics, that never happened. Until now, of course.

Politicians belonging to the left and the right, the conservative and the progressive, the communal and the secular, have time and again revealed their narrow, pro-status quo mindset. But, when it came to garnering votes... each has played the reformist card.

Indeed, 22 August 2017 stands as a testimony to how Nehru's India is gradually dissolving in the churn of a rapidly evolving national discourse.

But, let's not be misled by the obverse of the Nehruvian approach to gender emancipation. If we push ourselves to believe that the Hindu right wing—and by logical progression, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—is somehow going to undo the wrongs of Nehru, then we could be terribly mistaken.

If Nehru approached "gender emancipation" as a function of religious identity, then the Sangh is no different. Both are exclusivists when it comes to empowering women or dismantling the embedded patriarchy in Indian society. The past and present both stand testimony to this. Let me point my readers to what Swami Karpatri—an RSS leader—argued with respect to polygamy (a common practice amongst Muslims) during the fierce Hindu Code Bill debate right after 1947:

"If the wife is a habitual drunkard, a confirmed invalid, a cunning, a barren or a spendthrift woman, if she is bitter-tongued, if she has got only daughters and no son, if she hates her husband, (then) the husband can marry a second wife even while the first is living."

But, that was more than six decades ago. Both the Sangh and its derivatives, like the BJP, have evolved and have adapted their ideologies according to the day's sensibilities. Does that mean the party now believes in equal rights for women? "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" and the gendered opposition to Article 35(A)—which deprives women born in Jammu & Kashmir –might push us to think so. But, a party is not a metaphysical entity. It is composed of real human beings with real views—views, which cannot (and must not) be decoupled from "the party." And these individual views tell us otherwise.

When top BJP leaders—not fringe entities—pointed fingers at a victim of violent stalking for "staying out late," not-so-implicitly absolving the accused, the party put its gender sensibilities on naked display. The patent suspicion of its leading figures towards a romantic relationship between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman under the blanket label of "love jihad" also tells us volumes about what the party thinks about a woman's autonomy.

What's more, in the BJP's vehement roaring over triple talaq lies its silence on the ample patriarchy in Hindu social practices. One does, and must, wonder what the party has to say about the latter. This is notwithstanding the distinct reality that triple talaq is imposed by dogma, while Hindu patriarchy is furthered by unwritten "traditions."

As long as our national psyche remains stuck between Nehru and Savarkar, gender will remain the laboratory instrument that it always has been.

[O]ne milestone of emancipation must be seen as precedent for more. For India's majority Hindu community, this means reflecting on its own cultural mores that perpetuate patriarchy and oppression.

But, in practice, whataboutery is always a cyclic and futile exercise. The truth remains that patriarchy and sexism aren't the monopolies of one specific political party or spectrum in India. Politicians belonging to both the left and the right, the conservative and the progressive, the communal and the secular, have time and again revealed their narrow, pro-status quo mindset towards prevalent gender dynamics in the country.

But, when it came to garnering votes and affecting vested institutional changes, each have played the reformist card. Sometimes, reformation came in the form of an apparently "anti-Hindu" Hindu Code Bill, and at the other times, as activism against triple talaq. For the Indian polity, gender has been the quintessential low-hanging fruit that comes to rescue when hunger for seats strikes.

But, why take such a pessimist line on a celebratory occasion as that of the grand Supreme Court verdict? Simply because gender emancipation is not an "event," but a process traversing a dark tunnel. There is no bright white light in sight for now. While it is fair to mark the significance of judgments like these, it is wiser to recognise the kinetic and universal nature of the process. In fact, one milestone of emancipation must be seen as precedent for more. For India's majority Hindu community, this means reflecting on its own cultural mores that perpetuate patriarchy and oppression. This means moving out of the shackles of the Congress-BJP binary to facilitate all-encompassing reformation. This means disassociating oneself from stone-set identities and recognising gender equality as a pan-ideological objective.

As long as our national psyche remains stuck between Nehru and Savarkar, gender will remain the laboratory instrument that it always has been.

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