A proper legislation to curb child marriage is one of the markers of the democratic modern societies where equal status and rights of women are accepted as a norm. But it is not with ease that the conservative elements (read: vested interests) permit such bills to go through. On various grounds -- in the name of religion, sacred traditions et al -- the medieval-minded have opposed the raising of age of marriage for girls. The thinking seems simple: the earlier girls fall into domesticity, the easier it is to cage them and have a slave and companion for men. With religious sanctions.
It is in this light that one looks at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board's (AIMPLB) decision to oppose the Child Marriage restraint Act 1929, which puts 18 years as the lowest age at which girls can be married. One needs to recall that it was opposition by the same worthies to the Shah Bano judgement and creation of hysteria -- Islam in Danger, et al -- that made Rajiv Gandhi concede the demands of Mullhas, and get the judgment overruled by a new act of Parliament. Something that the Hindutva Right never fails to rake up against the "pseudo" secularists.
Needless to say, most of the Muslim majority countries have brought in legislations which give due justice to women in matters of marriage, divorce and the like. In India this is a sore point for civic society. While on one hand it hurts Muslim women, on the other it gives a much-needed pretext to the Hindu communalists to launch one more offensive on the Muslims as a whole, whether they are pro or anti such legislations.
The story is quiet complex.
We have been witnessing a rise in communal violence. In all these communal riots, the number of Muslim victims has been over 80%. To repeat the obvious, after partition, the elite, and a large section of educated Muslims left for Pakistan in the longing for greener pastures (pun intended). The sections left behind were more from the lower and illiterate sections, who due to discriminatory policies of Hindutva-infected state apparatus, could not come up and join the mainstream.
Despite odds, a large section of Muslims was still able to struggle for modern education and try for decent employment, business and other means of livlihood. Till Nehru was alive, his impeccable secular credentials and policies gave confidence to the minorities. After his demise, the Hindutva elements in Congress were strengthened -- first Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao were to use Hindu communal cards for electoral purpose.
Communal violence has gone up in intensity by and by. This violence not only paralysed the minorities for a long time, it also created ghettoisation -- a fertile ground for rise of medieval-minded in the community. Which increases the power of Mullahs within the community whose retrograde thinking imposes practices which are detrimental to the status and rights of woman in particular.
It is remarkable at one level that despite such odds the Muslim women have covered a lot of ground towards a honourable place in family and community. After Babri demolition in particular, the retrograde march has picked up steam and Mullahs have ruled the roost.
And this is precisely what adds fuel to the communal fire being witnessed by us from 1980s. The two -- imposition of conservative norms on Muslim minorities and the strength of communal thinking, have a circuitous relationship. Each feeding the other to create a vicious cycle, the result of which is the social atmosphere where what gets sacrificed on the altar of Religious Nationalism is the Human Rights of weaker sections of society.
Here one must concede that that the trishul-wielders are the prime movers of communal politics today, while the Mullahs and Law boards of this ilk give ammunition to offensive communal politics. The Indian nation needs neither of these.
One must also note that the communal violence, in which Muslims turn out to be the bigger victims of the violence, is responsible for empowering the fundamentalists in both communities, more so amongst the Muslims. Every bout of riot leaves Mullahs in a stronger position.
In the aftermath of Mumbai riots the Muslim women's struggle for abolition of triple talaq, polygamy and burqa got a big set back. It did take a long time before the local groups working in this direction could regain the rhythm of their work for reforms amongst the community.
In the struggle for preservation of democratic norms, minority rights has no meaning if the rights of women are not taken up with utmost sincerity. It is the struggle of men and women from minority community along with other democratic-secular forces, which has the potential of being a strong pillar in the struggle against religious fascism, which is a major threat in India today.
The moves like the one proposed by AIMPLB will put the struggle back by miles and so need to be opposed by all those striving to curtail the march of religious fascism.
(The author teaches at IIT Mumbai and works with EKTA, Committee for Communal Amity, Mumbai)