POLITICS
09/04/2019 1:00 AM IST | Updated 09/04/2019 10:28 AM IST

Why Muslim Women In Rural Bengal Don't Trust BJP On Triple Talaq

The women readily associated the BJP with violence and prejudice directed at their community.

MALDA, West Bengal —Sofura Bibi fiddled with the border of her printed blue cotton saree and stared at the ground for nearly a minute before looking up.

“Yes? No no,” she said, sounding startled, when she was told that instant triple talaq was banned in the country. Sofura, who estimated she is about 40 years old, lives in Harishchandrapur, a village in Malda where tiny clusters of concrete houses stand amid rice fields and rows of thatched mud huts.

There aren’t many seats in Bengal where the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) fancies its chances, but paradoxically this border-district with a slender Muslim majority is one of them.

Last year, 29 of the 202 panchayat seats (technically called samitis) the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won in Bengal were in Malda, presenting an interesting challenge of consolidating the region’s Hindu population by projecting Muslims as a threat, while also somehow reaching out to Muslim women by popularising the BJP’s efforts to criminalise triple talaq.

Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury, the BJP’s candidate from Malda South constituency, has taken to posting videos of Muslim women joining the party on her Facebook page. “There should be two surgical strikes in West Bengal. One in Kalighat, one in Kotwali. Our woman CM and the woman MP from Malda has failed to protect women. When the triple talaq bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the Muslim MP from here opposed it. It is condemnable,” Chaudhury is seen saying in a video, accompanied by visuals of her briefly clutching a BJP flag along with half a dozen Muslim women, and shouting ‘Narendra Modi zindabad’.

Meanwhile Sanjeet Mishra, Malda’s BJP district president and former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member has been betting on Hindu fears.

“Now Hindus are a minority in Malda. And there is a sense of fear,” Mishra told HuffPost India. “Twenty years back, people mocked us when we said this but now they are coming and telling us, you were right. If BJP doesn’t win this time, it won’t be possible for us to stay in this country anymore. Now people know we were saying the truth all along.”

It is hard to say if this double-barrel messaging will work.

Several Muslim women interviewed by HuffPost India seemed unaware of that that the instant Triple-talaq provision of Muslim personal law had been revoked in December 2018, but readily associated the BJP with violence and prejudice directed at their community.

“I cannot remember. What did they do?” said 45-year-old Munjerina Bibi, who binds beedis for a living in Noyagram village in Malda, when asked about triple talaq. But she said someone had told her that BJP wants to send Muslims away to Bangladesh. Munjerina earns Rs 100-120 for binding around 1000 bidis over a day-and-half. Her husband works as a labourer and occasionally goes to other districts and states to work. Munjerina has heard about Afrajul Khan, a man from a village a few kilometres away from hers, who was hacked and burned to death by a man claiming to be some sort of a ‘Hindutva warrior’.

“I’ve heard Modi and his party is beating up Muslims everywhere,” Munjerina said. “Let them not come here.”

 

“I’ve heard Modi and his party is beating up Muslims everywhere,” Munjerina said. “Let them not come here.”

Across Malda, Muslim women had much to discuss about the BJP’s five-tenure at the Centre — its just that triple talaq didn’t figure very high on the list.

In Shujapur, Shakila, a 50-year-old widow, said she had heard “something” about triple talaq, but didn’t know what the ban was about. The “ban” she did want to talk about was the note-ban, or demonetisation of 2016, which she said had ruined her tailoring business.

A customer told Shakila the afternoon of 9 November 2016 that government has banned some currency notes. “She paid me fifty rupees for altering five kurtas and said she didn’t want to spend her cash, but had to think about me,” she said. At first Shakila thought it had something to do with ‘fake notes’ but shopkeepers in her neighbourhood explained that old notes were banned. Shakila spent the next week running from banks to neighbours houses to figure what she’d do with the four-five thousand rupees she had saved up. She only got her notes exchanged after three weeks after falling sick twice while queuing up at a bank. “One day, I stood for three hours and came back empty handed,’ she said.

The centrally-administered Goods and Service Tax (GST), rolled out the next year, Shakila said, had further impoverished her family by raising the prices of daily necessities.

“Demonetisation ended, but with GST, everything is more expensive,” she said. “Even if I go to buy a bedsheet, the shopkeepers say that price has increased because of GST.”

If the central government was so concerned about Muslim women, Shakila said, “Give us jobs.”

Nazma, the 31 year-old mother of a teenage son, agreed.

 

“Demonetisation ended, but with GST, everything is more expensive,”

“I was married when I was 16. I took my boards after I was married,” Nazma said. “Triple talaq ban and all is fine, but why are we so dependent on men? Because I have no job. Even if we could get work as teachers in primary schools or somewhere, it would be of big help.”

Sofura has lived in the village in Malda, a West bengal district that shares a long border with Bangladesh, for nearly 20 years and though she insisted she doesn’t ‘work’, her day is spent on a string of unpaid jobs — helping her farmer husband in the small patch of land he owns, cooking for the family, cleaning her mud hut, washing, taking care of children and tending to goats. Sofura never went to school and doesn’t have a phone. Of the couple of times she had heard about BJP in the past year, 40-year-old Sofura said ‘it was something about them stopping the sale of cow meat’’. “I have lived here for years, never heard the Hindus ask us to stop. People eat their own food here and don’t bother others,” she said.

On circling back to instant triple talaq, Sofura said she has not heard any ‘new law’ about it.

HINDUTVA VERSUS TRIPLE TALAQ

District president for the BJP, Mishra, mentioned a conversation he recently had with an imam in Malda. “The imam asked me, what is the problem between Hindus and Muslims? I said ‘nothing’,” he said.

“‘But’, I told him, ‘you stop slaughtering cows and there will be no more issues between us’,” Mishra added.

Down the road from Sofura’s house, at Gol More, 50-year-old Ghulam Mohammad runs a tea-shack, a stall he said has been around for 70 years now and used to belong to his father.

 

Ghulam Mohammad (centre) at his tea stall.

Over the past year, Mohammad had noticed something ‘strange’. For decades, party workers visited villages with pamphlets — the party symbol printed on it — and asked them to vote on that symbol. Starting last year’s panchayat polls, Mohammad said, men from BJP knocked on the doors of Hindu households and loudly said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and asked for their vote. Some of the men making rounds of the houses, he said, didn’t ‘look like locals’. “I’ve heard men come the night before from outside and then go knocking on doors in the morning,” he said. Mozamel, a small-time labour present at the tea-stall said, in his village, he doesn’t see too many BJP people anyway. “There are mostly Muslim houses. I think they don’t want to get there,” he said.

The polarisation has incited a sharp response from Sofura’s village. The ban on instant triple talaq have not gone down well with many Muslim men, and a man in the village said, “The Prime Minister has left his wife and doesn’t take care of her. That woman has appealed so many times. The BJP is meddling with the laws of the shariat, can they ask their leader to first put his house in order?”. He added that women or men won’t accept any marital law above the law of the religion.

POLITICS AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Mausum Noor, the Trinamool Congress’s candidate from Malda North constituency, has zero-ed in on the BJP’s mixed messaging. Noor’s family has deep roots in the region: Noor’s grandfather ABA Ghani Khan Choudhary’s name pops up everywhere in Malda — in names of engineering colleges, schools, hospitals. In 2014, when Congress faced major drubbing everywhere else, Noor went on to win from her constituency. Early this year she switched to Trinamool Congress, leading Rahul Gandhi to call her a traitor at a rally in the district.

One afternoon in April, Noor, clad in a checked red saree, hopped off her jeep which trailed a convoy of motorcycles to greet locals in Harishchandrapur.

“The decision to ban triple talaq was not made after talking extensively with people from the community,” Noor told the small crowd that had gathered. “The government wanted to push it to simply score one over Muslims. We do not support the way it was done.”

REALITY CHECK

For Muslim women fighting for their marital rights, the BJP’s vociferous support for the ban on instant triple talaq has complicated their struggle. Some, like Nazia Elahi Khan — a lawyer who represented one of the petitioners what became the triple-talaq case adjudicated by the Supreme Court —has joined the BJP and is frequently seen at their rallies. “I have sent at least 40 petitions to the government, state women’s commission to intervene and look into cases of women who have been driven out of their homes. I have got no response from them,” she said.

Others, like Khan’s client, Momtaz Khatun, are more circumspect.

Instead of making triple talaq a poll issue, Khatun said, all parties should properly explain women how to defend their rights.

“It could be BJP, Trinamool, CPM, I appeal to all parties to help us,” she said.

She does however, has a bone to pick with Banerjee’s government: Khatun’s husband, a West Bengal civil services officer is a member of the executive body of the Haj Committee in Bengal. Two years after their marriage was arranged in 2010, Khatun’s husband sent her a letter on speed-post with talaq scribbled on it thrice.

While a local court actually ruled in Khatun’s favour, her husband has challenged the order and continues to thrive in the security of his government job. Khatun, however, is fending off pressure from her community to accept the terms of her divorce.

“Community pressure is very strong,” she said.