Believers and non-believers alike pontificate about religion. The notion that religion is a force for good in society means even non-believers will argue that interpretations of religion which are intolerant and unjust are 'incorrect'; usually based on a non-religious conception of what constitutes morality. Traditionalists and regressive leftists will argue that the most conservative customs of minority religious groups are the most authentic, and should be allowed to be practiced in the name of freedom of religion. But what is the role of a secular state in this matter?
Upholding religious freedom by remaining neutral on interpretations of religion is the duty of any secular State.
The ongoing debate about the triple talaq in India addresses the matters of justice and a ping-pong match of statistics, as if the greater number of people with a certain demand somehow legitimizes it. Whatever the correct interpretation of any religion is according to God (if he/she/it exists), is a theological debate within a religious community which should take place in civil society--but in a truly secular state, is it right for the government to take a stand either way? Religious affiliation is mostly a product of birth and geography: can a State claim people have freedom of religion if it sides with one interpretation of that religion? There is little free religious choice when one wishes to label themselves a 'Hindu' or 'Muslim', but then has this identity filtered through what the government deems to be the correct definition of these identities.
Besides, if talaq is banned, does God suddenly accept the law of the land as valid? Or did God never accept the practice of triple talaq? While these questions may seem facetious, they present serious theological questions for some believers. Banning talaq and recognizing it should be one and the same in the eyes of a secular State. Ideally, the Islamic marriage (nikah) should be one separate from state marriage, yet this ideal poses a serious risk of citizens neglecting state marriage altogether and only undertaking religious marriages--potentially placing women in harm's way. Upholding religious freedom by remaining neutral on interpretations of religion is the duty of any secular State.
The State must ensure that in addition to a faith-based marriage, a legal one is also undertaken... a woman who faces triple talaq would still be legally married...
Scrapping religious marriage acts to avoid State interference on which form of Islam, Hinduism or Sikhism is correct must be accompanied by other measures. It must actively protect those who dissent from conservative forms of religion and seek reform in their communities. Keeping women safe in marriages means the State must become creative to ensure that in addition to a faith-based marriage, a legal one is also undertaken. In such a scenario, a woman who faces triple talaq would still be legally married, even if not in the eyes of God.
Enshrining the spirit of a muscular secularism is the way forward for the government in resolving these issues. Freedom of religion means freedom to practice religion in a pro-LGBT, feminist and anti-caste manner--but also to practice it in the most intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic manner. The government needs to draw clear lines about where this freedom should be limited--where it harms and encroaches on the freedoms of others. In other words, the government should give a clear secular 'talaq' to the Muslim Personal Law Board and all other laws and statutes that impose particular interpretations of religion on its citizens. Without this, it cannot claim to be completely secular.
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