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Why The Triple Talaq Judgment Reveals India As A ‘Fragile’ Republic

Are our institutions capable of facilitating our march to modernity?

20/09/2017 8:59 AM IST | Updated 20/09/2017 8:59 AM IST
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

The process of creative churn is the only way the past can stay relevant in the present and offer the gift of its experience and wisdom to the future. Religions, societies, organisations and even families must shed the false sense of certitude which leads to stagnation and eventual decay—only an alert and humble engagement with "context" can produce the nectar of wisdom that sustains life.

In his now famous and highly influential book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb made this thinking mainstream, by describing three types of systems namely fragile, robust and antifragile systems. Systems that insularly resist change with a "closed architecture" are by nature fragile and crumble under the pressure of change that a chaotic world inevitably imposes, while the systems that are designed to engage and deal with change through an "open architecture" tend to be robust or even "antifragile" i.e. they thrive in times of rapid change.

A fragile republic

A few incidents in the recent past have once again brought to fore the fragility of our republic and the irony of our democracy impinging on our republic. The highest court in the country cannot pronounce a patently regressive practice as constitutionally invalid and instead seeks refuge in a "tempered" judgment. The fact that the final judgement was against the practice is moot—in fact, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, we seem to have done a uniquely Indian thing of arriving at the correct decision without necessarily internalising the first principles.

The highest court in the country cannot pronounce a patently regressive practice as constitutionally invalid and instead seeks refuge in a "tempered" judgment.

In today's India, we are witnessing a coalescing of all the things that make up a perfect storm—an obdurate community leadership that does not allow the community to adapt, a weak institutional structure that cannot take a stand on the values that it is supposed to espouse, a lack of civilisational awareness that can inform the discourse and a young population in the midst of a technological explosion that creates new habits and motivations which then exacerbate the difference between their aspirations and living experience. As a result we end up expending a lot of societal energy in managing conflicts between tradition and modernity.

The central question for us is whether or not the institutions we have built are capable of facilitating our march to modernity or are we condemned to remain forever a fragile republic.

Religions and antifragility—a systems view

For the republic to be antifragile, the constituent components must at least be robust. In the Indian context, religion remains a significant social unifier and any concept of a republic must articulate an implementable vision of how traditions sanctioned by religions can reconcile with the Constitution and identify where and how the efforts of reform and change need to be focused.

[T]he Supreme Court has handled this case with kid gloves... sidestepping the debate on nikkah halala and the broader question of personal laws conflicting with the Constitution.

Extending Taleb's framework to set of systems that fall under the category of "religions", we find that even if the change has not been pervasive enough, societies and religions have at times managed to find an architecture that preserves the eternal principles with provisions for altering the temporal dimensions according to the dictates of time, space and circumstance (Desa, Kala and Nirnaya). It is the inability to change what is contextual while preserving the core that leads to rigidity and arrests the scope to adapt and evolve according to contemporary requirements creates a rigid order and structure makes a system highly monolithic, stuck in time for perpetuity and therefore highly fragile.

The triple talaq judgment – change or continuity?

The Renaissance in the Christian experience, though it had some unintended consequences, paved the way for a more flexible, less rigid Christianity. The clear separation of the domains of the Church and the State that emerged created the necessary space for Christian acceptance of the modern republic. In the case of the Dharma traditions, the clear distinction between eternal principle and contextual practices, between Shruti and Smrithi, and the insistence on pluralism of approaches enables them to creatively reinterpret its principles to remain contemporary and relevant. In the case of Islam in India over the past century, the self-appointed guardians of the religion have unfortunately led it towards increasing homogeneity, rigidity and insularity. This has had the unfortunate effect of refusing to creatively engage with modernity and the challenges that it offers.

Muslims of India have been underserved and undermined by their own. For far too long, the self-appointed custodians of the Muslim community like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) have used the cover of "perfection" only to perpetuate patriarchy. Progressive and moderate voices (like Sultan Shahin), who call for revisiting Islamic theology in light of the 21st century are systematically sidelined.

Given this half-hearted push from the courts, the onus falls back on the community to resume the battle and take it forward.

The fight for gender equality was a great chance for the self-appointed custodians to show that genuine reform can indeed come from within, but by choosing to side against gender justice and continuing to remain rooted in obsolescence, they have withered that chance and dampened the hope of the believers and supporters. This closing of ranks within the community has made reform from within difficult and presents a version of personal law that is incompatible with the values enshrined in the Constitution that we gave ourselves 70 years ago. The argument of "change must come from within" was heeded by the Indian republic. However, with almost no progress in making Muslim personal law gender equitable, it may increasingly find itself in a place where it is forced to intervene and make changes. Even so, the Supreme Court has handled this case with kid gloves, stopping with making instant triple talaq untenable, while sidestepping the debate on nikkah halala and the broader question of personal laws conflicting with the Constitution as many commentators have already pointed out.

Given this half-hearted push from the courts, the onus falls back on the community to resume the battle and take it forward. The triple talaq issue offers a rare opportunity for the community to take control and steer the course of Islam in India in a new direction that is different from the political project which pits the ummah against the republic and which has become the dominant or even the only version—a direction back to a faith that that can provide the spiritual nourishment to help its followers deal with the complex problems of today and help them harmonise the core of their tradition with the inevitable demands of a modern society.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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