Only social conservatives will disagree with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent assertion at the celebrations in the honour of the 12th century Kannada philosopher and reformer, Basaveshwara, that the issue of triple talaq should not be politicised and a solution to the problem must be found, preferably from within the Muslim community.
Only sworn adversaries of the prime minister will not share his optimism that "enlightened people will also emerge from among Muslims and come forward to end this practice, liberating our Muslim daughters and mothers from the scourge".
It is a different matter that many feel he has raked-up this issue as a tactic to belittle the minority community. Many are also of the opinion that Modi's perception of women, regardless of the community they belong to, is little different from the dominant approach of casting women as mothers and daughters exclusively — i.e. people with 'care-of' identities.
Despite these reservations, the prime minister's argument is valid. There is nothing better than reforms from within.
His critics argue that Modi habitually kindles the triple talaq issue even when the themes of his speeches do not warrant a reference to it. But the prime minister's (recent) headline-grabbing comments were made in the course of his observation that Basaveshwara did not pay mere lip-service to women's empowerment and equal partnership, but took concrete steps to put his principles to practise.
Because he is prime minister, Modi is within his rights to pick up cudgels and prevent discrimination of any form, against any particular group, within any community. But similar promptness and perseverance must be displayed even in inter-community disputes, especially when the laws of the land are violated.
Modi's decision to bring up triple talaq stemmed from his remark that long periods and instances of discriminatory practices in India are unfortunate elements of our heritage. These failings were removed at the initiative of eminent people and not suo motu by the then regime, he said.
Critics argue that Modi habitually kindles the triple talaq issue even when the themes of his speeches do not warrant a reference to it
Though Modi jumbled facts by championing Raja Rammohan Roy for advocating widow remarriage when his 'signature' drive was against Sati (Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the principal crusader for widow remarriage), the prime minister correctly observed moribund practises have ended in history, thanks to the efforts of social reformers.
There are, however, a few concerns over Modi's framing of arguments against the practise of triple talaq. Firstly, displaying anguish over Muslim women's persistent fear of being divorced in a split second appears motivated because not just women but the entire community faces unprecedented insecurity. In recent years, names, clothes, headgears and the way Muslim men grow their beards and other personal characteristics have become excuses to persecute them. Women in the community face this onslaught doubly — first as Muslims, then as women.
Moreover, in riot after riot, women are always 'fields' on which members of the other community mark 'presence' by brutal instances of sexual violence. In contemporary India, the majority community has ample reason to believe that this is "their government". In such a backdrop, shedding copious tears only about "what Muslim daughters are undergoing", while ignoring sons and brothers of the community, makes it amply clear that such 'concern' is aimed at painting a particular kind of image of the community.
Modi suggests there is no history of social reform among Muslims. The community is projected as a group rooted in archaic traditions. While reference is made to social reforms among Hindus, there is silence on social reforms among Muslims. It can be contended that some reforms came late to Muslims, compared to the Hindu community, and that their character was significantly different, even less radical, but ignoring the existence of such reforms among Muslims altogether will further deepen the prejudice against the minority community. Such an attitude contributes to political stereotyping, a tactic that has enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party to reap electoral dividends in recent years.
Additionally, Modi is hopeful of a social reform movement to end triple talaq, not because of the Muslim community's history but because of "the great tradition of Bharat" and as a result of the "strength of this country's soil through centuries". This 'national' strength would result in the emergence of "people from the same community" with capacity and vision to "save our mothers and sisters". Mention of this tradition without reference to social reform within the Muslim community suggests that the practise of self-improvement is exclusive to Hindus.
Modi suggests there is no history of social reform among Muslims.
There is no denying that Modi correctly demarcated society and community in terms of the enlightened and the not-so-enlightened. He tasked the enlightened among Muslims with the enormous responsibility of putting an end to triple talaq. However, even within the Hindu community, there are several tasks that can be simultaneously handed out to progressive and informed minds.
More than six decades after the passage of the Hindu code bills, which included the Hindu Succession Act allowing equal rights of inheritance for Hindu women (also Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists), these laws are followed more in violation than compliance. There is need to examine why widows continue to be abandoned in a big way by families in pilgrimage cities like Mathura-Vrindavan and Varanasi. More than 160 years after the British legalised widow remarriage, it is yet to have widespread social approval.
Numerous movies and investigations have documented the inhuman practise of abandoning widows, yet it continues without any organised resistance. Similarly, issues of dowry, harassment and killing of wives, female foeticide and child marriage remain rampant problems within the Hindu community. Is it unfair to expect the prime minister to encourage enlightened sections among the Hindus to campaign for the eradication of such evils?
Social reforms in every community have to be a continuous process and the better informed must be reminded of their responsibilities. Campaign against decadent practices is a long-drawn process and often takes decades to accomplish. No one knows this better than Modi because the Sangh Parivar has campaigned against the caste system since its inception. Though its primary motivation has stemmed from the assessment that caste fissures prevent Hindu consolidation, the positive yields of their campaign cannot be undermined. Yet, even after 90 years, the crusade remains an unaccomplished project.
Because his plea to the enlightened to take the lead did not address those among the Hindus, Modi runs the risk of being seen as someone whose actual audience is within the Hindu community. Unless this impression is altered, the prime minister's commitment to the sabka saath, sabka vikas pledge will be questioned. The hazard becomes greater because rational sections among Hindus are also not being beseeched to prevent vigilante groups from taking the law in their hands in the name of religion. Tolerance towards other communities and viewpoints is a powerful tool in the hands of the enlightened to forge social cohesion. Political leaders must remind them to invoke it for development and harmony's sake.
Also on HuffPost