Modi seeks sup­port from Mus­lim women

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

When Naren­dra Modi stood be­fore faith­ful fol­low­ers in Oc­to­ber, on a stage swathed in the saf­fron col­ors of his Hindu na­tion­al­ist move­ment, the In­dian leader made an un­ex­pected over­ture. “It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the gov­ern­ment and peo­ple of the coun­try to give jus­tice to Mus­lim women,” the prime min­is­ter de­clared. Modi’s public po­lit­i­cal ca­reer took off as chief min­is­ter of Gu­jarat state in 2001, just be­fore ri­ot­ers killed about 1,000 peo­ple, mostly Mus­lims, lead­ing to ac­cu­sa­tions that he turned a blind eye to the mur­der and rape go­ing on around him.

Modi de­nies in­volve­ment in the 2002 ri­ots, but his rise to na­tional power in 2014 was ac­com­pa­nied by groups of hard­line Hin­dus at­tempt­ing mass con­ver­sions of Mus­lims and cases of beat­ing and whip­ping of Mus­lim men in broad day­light. Now, his rul­ing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is chal­leng­ing an Is­lamic prac­tice, known as “triple ta­laq”, that al­lows a man to di­vorce his wife sim­ply by ut­ter­ing the word “ta­laq” three times.

The proposal is a bold ploy to win ap­proval and votes from Mus­lim women and chip away at an im­por­tant bloc of vot­ers - there are around 170 mil­lion Mus­lims in In­dia - that has thus far viewed Modi with sus­pi­cion. The outreach could help de­cide the out­come of a bell­wether state elec­tion early next year. Ut­tar Pradesh, with nearly 40 mil­lion Mus­lims out of 200 mil­lion peo­ple, is a key test of Modi’s pop­u­lar­ity as he pre­pares to seek a se­cond term in 2019. Some Mus­lim women there have said they sup­port Modi’s proposal, al­though they are less sure about him. There is fierce op­po­si­tion, mean­while, from in­flu­en­tial Mus­lim el­ders and teach­ers. “They are us­ing this tac­tic to at­tack Is­lam, to at­tack Mus­lims,” said Abul Qasim No­mani, vice chan­cel­lor of the Darul Uloom Deoband madrassa, the largest Is­lamic sem­i­nary in In­dia, lo­cated in Ut­tar Pradesh. “Mus­lim women are be­ing used as show­pieces to fight a bat­tle against Is­lam,” added the 70-year-old, his face framed by a white beard and prayer cap. A madrassa of­fi­cial sit­ting be­side him mut­tered: “This is like a wolf ad­vo­cat­ing for the rights of goats.”

Triple ta­laq is banned in some Mus­lim coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia’s neigh­bor and ri­val Pak­istan, but is al­lowed un­der In­dian rules de­signed to pro­tect re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties. The BJP and its ide­o­log­i­cal sur­ro­gates are bet­ting that by con­fronting di­vi­sions within In­dia’s Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion about those tra­di­tional di­vorce prac­tices, they can win in two ways. The move will ap­peal to the Hindu ma­jor­ity, by em­pha­siz­ing the need to counter Is­lamic in­flu­ence in so­ci­ety, while at the same time splin­ter­ing off Mus­lim vot­ers.

That may help Modi curb elec­toral dam­age from an­other big po­lit­i­cal gam­bit - the re­cent abo­li­tion of high value ban­knotes that has led to cash short­ages and dented key sec­tors of the econ­omy. It is dif­fi­cult to tell on the streets of Ut­tar Pradesh, a poor state where wa­ter buf­fa­los trudge through wheat fields and traf­fic alike, how much trac­tion Modi and his Hindu sup­port­ers will get from the ini­tia­tive.

His coali­tion won 10 per­cent of the Mus­lim vote in Ut­tar Pradesh dur­ing 2014 na­tional elec­tions, ac­cord­ing to a post-elec­tion sur­vey by the non-par­ti­san Cen­tre for the Study of De­vel­op­ing So­ci­eties. A separate sur­vey cover­ing 10 other states found last year that 92 per­cent of Mus­lim women sup­ported a ban on the im­me­di­ate triple ta­laq di­vorce, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that some, in the mo­ment of push­ing a vot­ing ma­chine but­ton, might defy their com­mu­nity and choose the space next to the BJP’s lo­tus flower.

The chair­woman of the Mus­lim women’s ad­vo­cacy group that did the na­tional sur­vey, Zakia So­man, ran chil­dren’s schools in the re­lief camps for vic­tims of the 2002 ri­ots in Gu­jarat. “It is true that Mus­lims can’t trust him (Modi) af­ter the Gu­jarat ri­ots, but triple ta­laq is a separate is­sue,” So­man said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Mus­lims will have to com­part­men­tal­ize each is­sue for their own well­be­ing ... if the prime min­is­ter does the cor­rect thing and thinks of (the) greater good, then it is nat­u­ral for him to win votes from Mus­lim women.”

‘Don’t In­ter­fere With Qu­ran’

The idea of ex­pand­ing an ex­ist­ing ar­ti­cle of the na­tion’s con­sti­tu­tion that calls for a “uni­form civil code” to one that ex­plic­itly bans polygamy and the use of triple ta­laq in the Mus­lim com­mu­nity has been de­bated for decades. As it stands now, that sec­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion says a code should ex­ist but does not de­scribe its pa­ram­e­ters. Modi’s gov­ern­ment, though, has sig­nalled that it wants to change the sta­tus quo. A se­nior BJP leader in Ut­tar Pradesh said the party planned to high­light triple ta­laq dur­ing elec­tion cam­paign­ing there. The gov­ern­ment filed a mo­tion in sup­port of a Supreme Court case this year in which a Mus­lim woman op­posed triple ta­laq. —Reuters

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