11/11/2016 4:24 AM IST | Updated 11/11/2016 9:25 AM IST

How Muslims Can Call The BJP's Bluff On Triple Talaq

Amit Dave / Reuters

When was the last time you heard the BJP, the RSS or even your average Hindutva Twitter warrior complain about the Haj subsidy? The tax payer's support to Indian Muslims to go for the Haj pilgrimage used to be a major Hindutva issue. Has the government abolished the Haj subsidy? Or is it no longer pseudo-secularism?

'How could a secular state give a Haj subsidy?' We used to hear this a lot in the '90s. It was by asking such questions that the BJP rose from the margins of Indian politics to national mainstream. While the BJP makes no bones about being its Hindu majoritarian worldview, it justified that worldview by accusing the Congress of 'Muslim appeasement'.

There is no opposition to dropping the Haj subsidy amongst Muslims today. Their religion tells them they must do the pilgrimage on their own money if they can afford it, and besides, many Muslims have argued that the Haj subsidy is actually an Air India subsidy. Air India uses the 'subsidy' to offer 'discounted' tickets but if the government were to take away Air India's monopoly over Haj flights and allow open tender and bidding, the flights could be a lot cheaper.

That is why there are Muslims floating online petitions asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to abolish Haj subsidy. But now that Muslims are opposing Haj subsidy, the BJP has forgotten the issue. Thanks to a Supreme Court judgement in 2012, asking the government to phase out Haj subsidy, the government has brought it down from Rs 750 crores a year to Rs 500 crores. There has been no noise by Muslims about this reduction, and neither are there any Hindutva champions crying foul over spending such huge sums on a Muslim religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Muslims can do this to triple talaq too. If they start agreeing with the BJP over the need to abolish triple talaq (and polygamy), the BJP will drop the issue. The issue would be of no use to the BJP if it stops rankling Muslims, a la Haj subsidy.

There were a handful of other such issues that used to be dear to the BJP. There was, for instance, the issue of Kashmiri Pandits. The BJP in power can't complain about Kashmiri Pandits because the Congress, liberals or Indian Muslims aren't stopping them from rehabilitating back in Kashmir. Such issues are politically useful to the BJP and the RSS only of they can help it unite Hindus, for which Muslims, 'secular' parties and liberals have to be on the wrong side of it.

The Babri Mistake

The biggest issue of all was that of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. We hear noises about it from time to time, but everybody agrees we should let the matter drag on in the Supreme Court. When the apex court in a strange judgement divided the Babri Masjid land in three parts, Indian Muslims didn't protest. They heaved a sigh of relief. Had the land been awarded to one Muslim party alone, it would have given the BJP another issue to bully Muslims with.

The BJP doesn't want to ban triple talaq. It only wants to discuss the issue.

LK Advani, leader of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, famously said 6 December 1992 was the saddest day of his life. Kar sewaks brought down the medieval mosque and finished the issue. There were riots across the country, followed by bomb blasts in Mumbai, but the issue was over. Has the mosque stayed intact, it could have been milked forever. So devastating were the riots for Indian Muslims, a turning point so big in Indian politics, that many Muslims no longer care if a temple is built on the site.

The BJP and the RSS won't make that mistake again with triple talaq or the uniform civil code. If the Modi government actually tables the uniform civil code in Parliament, or even in a limited way manages to amend Muslim personal law to ban triple talaq and polygamy, the issue would be over.

The BJP doesn't want to ban triple talaq. It only wants to discuss the issue. Especially until the Uttar Pradesh elections are over. Once the elections are over, the triple talaq issue is also likely to be over, at least until another election that needs it.

Talaq, Talaq, Election

The current scenario in Uttar Pradesh politics explains why the BJP needs a national debate on triple talaq. In a three or four cornered contest, the winning party in Uttar Pradesh needs 30% vote-share to cross the majority mark. With the Samajwadi and Congress parties looking weak, it is increasingly becoming simpler for the Muslim vote to not get divided and vote for the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party.

On her part, Mayawati is wooing Muslims more desperately than ever before. Dalits are 20.5% of the population and Muslims 19.5%. For this total 40% population, Mayawati is looking like the only option this election. The two solid vote-blocks should ideally make it an easy sail through for her.

However, since it is looking like a bi-polar contest between the BJP and the BSP, the BJP wants to appeal to all voters except Dalits and Muslims. Even if we take the Samajwadi Party's 9% Yadavs out of the equation, the BJP still has a good catchment of over 40% of the population to appeal to.

The more the BJP said beef, the more the Mahagatbandhan shouted Backward-Forward.

​​​​​​Half of this 40% is the upper castes, which are the BJP's traditional voters anyway. But the other half are countless, small, fragmented OBC communities. The non-Yadav OBC, who helped the BJP win 71 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is a block the party needs to desperately consolidate if it has to give Mayawati a run for her money.

To do so, the BJP is trying many things, including triple talaq. The triple talaq debate, already mentioned by Amit Shah and Modi in their election speeches, is a signifier of communal polarisation. The idea is to say, look, Mayawati is appeasing Muslims.

This is particularly useful when Muslims, and the parties seeking their votes, fall into the BJP trap and join the triple talaq debate. All those expressing views one way or another on the issue are actually helping the BJP win Uttar Pradesh. When Mayawati repudiates Modi for the triple talaq debate and becomes a defender of 'Shariat', she is confirming to OBC and upper caste voters Modi's allegation that those supporting triple talaq are doing so for vote-bank politics.

Bihar Shows The Way

Exactly this time last year, the BJP lost Bihar even though it tried its best at communal polarisation. It took Lalu Yadav's "some Hindus also eat beef" comment and ran with it for weeks. Prime minister Modi referred to it too, and he even tried to suggest to Hindu voters that Nitish Kumar would take away OBC reservations and give it to Muslims.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 13: (L- R) All India Muslim Personal Law Board members Maulana Syed Arshad Madani, Maulana Mohammad Wali Rahmani, and Jamiat Ulama-I Hind and other important organization address a joint press conference on the issue of government affidavit and law notification on uniform civil code.

The attempt didn't work partly because communal polarisation has never really helped win elections in Bihar. Mandir has a history of electoral success in Uttar Pradesh, but Mandal has deeper roots in Bihar. The OBC versus upper caste polarisation, known in Bihar as 'Backward-Forward', trumps the 'Hindu-Muslim' divide.

But it wasn't by design. The more the BJP said beef, the more the Mahagatbandhan shouted Backward-Forward. Lalu Yadav recalled one bit of history after another to show how the RSS and the BJP have been anti-OBCs. Had Nitish Kumar or Lalu Yadav fallen into the BJP''s trap and responded to the beef question, the election could have turned in the BJP's favour.

Furthermore, on instructions of Nitish Kumar's campaign strategist Prashant Kishor, Lalu Yadav asked Muslim leaders to lie low. He even called up clerics and asked them not to issue fatwas to vote in favour of the Mahagatbandhan, as is the wont of clerics. Bihar's Muslim voters even by themselves chose not to respond to one provocation after another from the BJP and the RSS and stayed silent.

Calling The BJP's Bluff

In Uttar Pradesh by contrast, Muslims don't know the art of being silent. Outraged at attempts to tinker with their personal law, they are making a noise. They don't realise that by protesting on the streets they are actually playing into the BJP's hands.

BJP president Amit Shah has asked the other three parties, SP, BSP and the Congress, to clarify their stance on triple talaq, and portrayed himself as a champion of women's rights. He wants a clear answer: Are you with or against it? He is not asking: do you want the Haj subsidy abolished? Or, are you opposed to rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits?

Instead of opposing triple talaq, a smart response by other parties (and by Muslim voters) would be to ignore the question, thereby not allowing it to become a big election issue. Instead of letting the BJP set triple talaq as the agenda, the other parties could make something else a big election issue.

If changing the conversation is difficult, if it is already too late, 'secular' parties and Muslims could try another tack. They could support abolition of triple talaq and call the BJP's bluff. It's not as if the BJP government will actually ban triple talaq or bring uniform civil code. They will keep building "consensus" on it. Actually abolishing triple talaq would be like killing a golden goose. Why lose a good opportunity to show Muslims as a regressive community holding India back?

If Muslims actually start demanding abolition of triple talaq, the BJP will altogether drop the issue, just like the Haj subsidy.

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