NEW DELHI: I was just wondering the other day when all this talk of triple talaq was going on, what I would say to the wife of Mohammad Akhlaq who was killed in Dadri by cow vigilantes. And who is now in fear of her and her family’s life, with BJP legislators mobilising for her brother-in-law’s arrest, and demanding the release of those arrested by the authorities for her husband's death.

Would I go up to her and ask her to endorse the abolition of triple talaq? And urge her to join us in the campaign for reforms in the Muslim personal law? And if I was crass enough to do that, what would be her response? Would she turn away? Would she look at me as if I was mad? Would she articulate her thoughts: I have lost my husband, they killed him, they almost killed my son, they have destroyed my family, they are after us still, what law are you talking about?”

What indeed?

To understand this let us go back to the 1980’s. The Supreme Court in what came to be known as the Shahbano judgement, gave the destitute woman who was fighting for a basic life, the right to maintenance. It was an amazing ruling, giving a shot of adrenalin to the woman’s movement seeking reforms in all personal laws---Muslim, Christian, Hindu---to ensure that women were brought at par with men across communities. It was a major step forward.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the time seemed to be as elated. And fielded then Congress leader Arif Mohammad Khan to hail the judgement in Parliament, in what was a scintillating speech. The Muslim clerics swung into action, the Prime Minister was prevailed upon, another leader was fielded in Parliament to denounce the ruling, a new Bill to negate the judgement was introduced, and passed.

The women went out in protest. Even as Parliament was debating the Bill many chained themselves to the gates of Parliament; held demonstrations; issued statements; met the leadership but all to no avail. The Bill became law much to the delight of the Muslim conservatives. I still remember how we reached the gates as if walking past, and then chained ourselves in protest.

The ensuing years, however, were interesting and perhaps very significant. Secular women of all communities came out to campaign for reforms within. Muslim women led the campaign, as indeed did sections of the men, with the effort being to bring in a standard nikahnama whereby woman’s rights of marriage and divorce were given some protection in the marriage contract itself. Considerable headway was made then, on this. The abolition of triple talaq was raised, as was the question of maintenance, and Muslim women were slowly persuaded to question the patriarchal laws and see some of these personal laws as a violation of their basic marital and human rights.

It was going well, and we were all very encouraged with the response. It seemed as if the breakthrough required was imminent, and once the reforms came through we could actually examine the possibility of, and move closer to, a Uniform Civil Code.

But then came December 6,1992. The Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindutva mobs and the communal frenzy that followed effectively ensnared the reform movement, as all pitched in to save secularism and with it Indian democracy.

The struggle was intense.

This was followed by Gujarat 2002 and the violence that killed hundreds of Muslims. One wonders what Congress legislator Ehsan Jafri’s wife Zakia begum would say when asked today about personal law reforms. I wonder whether I would even have the courage to ask the brave widow who has refused to back down, despite setbacks, and continues to fight for justice to speak out against triple talaq.

But being Zakia Jafri, she might agree when approached. And endorse what Muslim women now have approached the Supreme Court for. But what would be her response when told that the BJP is also pushing the case, that Minister Venkaiah Naidu has in a signed article said “But, unfortunately, hundreds of Indian Muslim women, who have been victims of the instant triple talaq practice, seem to be caught in a time warp controlled and dominated by an anti-progressive patriarchal society.”

Would she endorse it then? Or would she pull back and refuse to yield ground to those she does not trust?

It was over these years I realised that when people’s lives are in danger, when they feel threatened and insecure, reforms become secondary. And are even thrown out of the window by the very same women who had worked day and night to persuade others in their locality.

Why? Because the clerics argument that majoritarianism is trying to wipe out the minority identity gathers ground, and is believed. And the patriarchal mindset holds sway as it tells the women to stay indoors, lest the violence on the streets enter their homes. Progress is retarded through a convergence of right wing forces of both communities, the one intending harm and the other magnifying the intention. In the process, the woman’s desire to be equal is aborted, the first casualty as always.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has followed his Law Minister Venkaiah Naidu to utter pious words against triple talaq. In remarks that cannot be faulted at the face of it, the PM said that people should not play politics, and in the process leave Muslim women bereft of their rights, and added, “now the issue of talaq has come up. Just like if any Hindu commits female foeticide he will have to go to jail, similarly what is the crime of my Muslim sisters that some one says talaq over phone and her life is destroyed.”

Sound sentiments except for the fact that one would expect the PM to be as, or actually more concerned, about the Muslim men as well who are being attacked and lynched by cow rakshaks. And perhaps if he had ensured that the vigilantes were kept under check there would have been no threat to Akhlaq, and his family. For if the minorities were made secure then the women could carry on with the reform movement, instead of stopping every now and again for years at a time to fire fight the communalism unleashed.

After 1992, women organisations carried out a series of brainstormings. I attended some of these meetings, and woman after woman (not Muslims) said that the progress had been thwarted, that there was no question of even talking about a uniform civil code, and first those hit by the riots and the violence needed to be given relief, and security.

Justice is key to reforms. The Muslim women who have approached the Supreme Court have done yeoman service to the cause, and need full support. But this is easier said than done. The Muslim Personal Law Board, a sad outfit of conservative patriarchs, has never supported the women on any issue till date. Anti progress and anti-reform the MPLB has acted true to character by opposing the move to abolish triple talaq. Unfortunately the BJP’s assertions are strengthening the patriarchal campaign, and while this will have little to no impact on the courts insofar as a ruling on triple talaq is concerned, it will create new fissures for the minorities over the demand for a uniform civil code.

The RSS has repeatedly spoken of the UCC, that is currently being perceived as a threat by the marginalised communities.The accompanying propaganda is as if it is only being resisted by the Muslims, when in fact it has created a sense of unease amongst all concerned. The ‘uniform’ as defined by the current dispensation seems to centre around a certain homogeneity of cultures, religion, and even basic thought. What is the uniform for the RSS and its affiliates, including the ‘love jihad’ campaigners and the cow vigilantes, might not be the desirable for those still seeking a diverse, plural, secular democracy.

The trust deficit is so low that more the statements, more the resistance. Women cannot be segregated from the larger community, especially when communal lynchings are not acted against, but actually condoned, and even protected. It is imperative thus for the court to give what, of course, will hopefully a sound, progressive judgement against triple talaq, but equally important for the women to take ownership of the reform process and ensure that it is not hijacked by the same forces who have contributed so immensely to insecurity at the larger level.