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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 10 New Delhi February 24, 2018

Visions of Secularism: Triple Talaaq Judgment

Friday 23 February 2018


by Irfan Engineer

Secularism is once again being debated after the five-member Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of India set aside by a majority of 3:2 judgment in Writ Petition (C) No. 118 of 2016 (Shayara Bano vs Union of India and others), talaaq-e-biddat or instant triple talaaq in one sitting resorted to by some Muslim men. The judgment is welcome insofar as it relieves Muslim women from the misery or potential misery of instant triple talaaq in one sitting. However, this is only a partial amelioration of their misery. Patriarchal interpretation of the Qur’an’s message, different Sunni fiqhs (Islamic schools of jurisprudence)—Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi, and Shia fiqhs (collectively called the Muslim Personal Law) will continue to reign even when they are in violation of fundamental rights mentioned in Part III of the Indian Constitution on the fundamental rights of citizens.

There were some common grounds in three separate judgments given in the Shayara Bano case—none of the three judgments contested the ground that “personal laws”, not being a law passed by the state, cannot be subjected to the test of violation of the fundamental rights of citizens. The Chief Justice of India and Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, in their joint judgment, held that personal laws or laws that govern family relations, namely, marriage, divorce, mainte-nance, custody of children, intestate succession, adoption of children, guardianship, etc., as they are not laws passed by the state, could not be subjected to judicial scrutiny as to whether they violate the fundamental rights of citizens.

It was not within the realm of discretion of the judiciary to set aside a matter of faith and religion, held the CJI and Nazeer J. They stated in their judgment: “It is not difficult to comprehend what kind of challenges would be raised by rationalists, assailing practices of different faiths on diverse grounds, based on all kinds of enlightened sensibilities. We have to be guarded, lest we find our conscience traversing into every nook and corner of religious practices, and ‘personal law’.” The Honourable Justices further held: “....while examining issues falling in the realm of religious practices or ‘personal law’, it is not for a court to make a choice of something which it considers as forward looking or non-fundamentalist. It is not for a court to determine whether religious practices were prudent or progressive or regressive. Religion and ‘personal law’ must be perceived, as it is accepted, by the followers of the faith. And not, how another would like it to be (including self-proclaimed rationalists, of the same faith). Article 25 obliges all Constitutional Courts to protect ‘personal laws’ and not to find fault therewith. Interference in matters of ‘personal law’ is clearly beyond judicial examination. The judiciary must, therefore, always exercise absolute restraint, no matter how compelling and attractive the oppor-tunity to do societal good may seem.” (Shayara Bano vs Union of India, 2017, p. 267, para 196) To follow personal law then, is part of the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion, unless it falls foul of reasonable restrictions mentioned in Article 25 of the Constitution, namely, public order, morality and health.

Rohinton F. Nariman and Uday U. Lalit JJ in their joint judgment did not contest the premise, namely, that personal laws are beyond the pale of judicial scrutiny. They held that the practice of talaaq-e-biddat was recognised and enforced by Section 2 of ‘The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937’, a colonial legislation. Talaaq-e-biddat was therefore ‘law in force’ within the meaning of Article 13 (1) of the Constitution and liable to be struck down if talaaq-e-biddat fell foul of Part III of the Constitution of India on fundamental rights. The Constitutional Courts therefore had the power to set it aside on the ground that it was arbitrary. Justice Kurian Joseph in his judgment agreed with the premise propounded by the CJI and Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, namely, that talaaq-e-biddat could not be termed as ‘law in force’ being a customary law and traditional practice. The impugned practice of instant talaaq therefore was part of Personal Law and amenable to judicial scrutiny for violation of fundamental rights. However, Kurian J. disagreed with the CJI and Nazeer J. on the issue that talaaq-e-biddat was against the tenets of the Holy Quran and that being so, it was ultra vires of S. 2 of the Shariat Act, 1937 and did not enjoy constitutional protection. Talaaq-e-biddat was therefore liable to be set aside.

Unrestrained freedom of personal laws

It could therefore be said that the learned Judges of the Constitutional Bench gave a 3:0, if not 5:0, verdict that personal laws of all communities would reign unrestrained and enjoyed the protection of Article 25[1] of the Constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of religion. Personal laws, as mentioned above, are rules of decision which pertain to marriage, divorce, etc. Unless codified (and to the extent codified) by the legislature, they are based on religious scriptures, customs, traditions and usages of communities. Custodians of religious scriptures and customs of all communities have been patriarchal and feudal elite. They often enforce them using the fear of God and at times use coercive force which may include threat of exclusion from community-controlled institutions, social boycott and even physical force. Personal laws often privilege a section (feudal and patriarchal elite) and disadvantage the rest in various degrees. Women and children have always been disadvantaged by the prevalent understanding of religious scriptures mediated through patriarchal culture. The custodians of personal laws—we can call them cultural entre-preneurs or gate-keepers of culture, customs and traditions—are necessarily conservative, maybe with a few exceptions. Much necessary changes in customs and traditions come about when individuals within communities challenge the practices and traditions in face of ostraci-sation and coercive harassment.

Freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion accrues to all persons. All persons are equally entitled to that freedom. However, if personal laws are accorded unbridled constitu-tional protection by Article 25, the cultural gate-keepers will enjoy higher degree of freedom as they can impose their understanding of religion and Personal Law on others. The elite cultural gate-keepers often draw lines to construct separate communal walls. These custodians of the community would judge right behaviour from wrong for their entire community. Can we then say all persons equally enjoy freedom of religion? The elite would enjoy more rights to profess and practice religion than other members of a community. There would be hierarchy within each community based on gender and other birth-based social status. The cultural gate-keepers defend these hierarchies as God-made. India would then look more like a confederation of communities rather than a nation of equal citizens.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted to make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Social democracy is a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. He warned us: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political demo-cracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.” (Dr Ambedkar, 1949)

Despite setting aside the practice of instant triple talaaq in one sitting by a 3:2 verdict, there is a cause for worry. Personal laws have been placed on a pedestal of freedom of religion. There is not even a whisper of gender equality in the entire judgment. R. F. Nariman and U. U. Lalit JJ. invoke Article 14 in support, however, on the issue of the arbitrary nature of talaaq-e-biddat.

AIMPLB Reaction

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), in its initial reaction, reminded us that the Court had upheld their submissions, namely, Personal Laws are part of freedom of religion and cannot be interfered with. The AIMPLB felt that their position had been vindicated. The Ulemas of various schools of jurisprudence would still be sitting over the lives of Muslim women enforcing their writ. Though talaaq-e-biddat has been set aside, Muslim women could still be divorced by talaaq-e-ahsan (two pronunciations with a gap of three months) and talaaq-e-hasan (pronouncing talaaq once every month three times when his wife is not menstruating). The instant talaaq would be replaced by a procedure to be followed over a period of three months. While no marriage can be forced upon either partner, and it is not prudent to continue a marriage when there is an irretrievable breakdown, a divorced woman should not be left in a situation of destitution to fend for herself. To the AIMPLB, the practice of talaaq-e-biddat (something they agreed was bad in theology, though good in law) has been sacrificed but the Muslim Personal Law has been saved.


The Shayara Bano judgment has drawn redlines for the judiciary. Personal Law having been declared an integral part of freedom of religion, they would not be amenable to judicial scrutiny for violation of fundamental rights. Ironically, under Article 25, right to freedom of religion is not absolute. It has been subjected to six reasonable restrictions: 1) public order; 2) morality; 3) health; 4) other provisions of Part III of the Constitution (fundamental rights); 5) regulation or restriction on economic, financial, political or secular activity associated with religious practice; and 6) providing for welfare and reforms. The last two restrictions would require legislative intervention. In our humble understanding, when the judiciary is mandated to protect the freedom of religion, the language of Article 25 is clear—it is subject to the other provisions of Part III, including Articles 14, 15 and 16 right to equality, recognised for all persons including gender equality.

However, so far as Personal Laws are concerned, the Shayara Bano judgment appeared to have been passed to buck on to the executive and legislature to make it compliant with the fundamental rights. Given the political agenda of Uniform Civil Code of the present regime, minorities fear that the legislature may impose a family law that is entirely alien to their way of life and with the intention to “integrate them into a Hinduised nation”. The learned former Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, submitted before the Court that if they set aside the practice, the Central Government was ready to bring in a legislation. This fear of imposition of an alien code keeps the flock of minority together. They fear any change, howsoever desirable and good for the community.

The Shayara Bano judgment seems to imply that the judiciary is obliged to uphold religious freedom of religio-cultural gate-keepers in their enforcement of personal laws. The judiciary would refrain from protecting fundamental rights of members of the community vis-a-vis the religio-cultural gate-keepers. The judiciary would encourage a church within Islam even though the religion does not permit one. There is no agent between God and the believer. The believer can seek help to understand the guidance of the Quran but she is solely responsible and responsible only to God, not the religio-cultural gate-keepers. The Shayara Bano judgment leaves gullible followers to the mercy of the self-appointed church—institutions propounding and enforcing various fiqhs and the AIMPLB. Islam does not oblige the believer to follow any school of jurisprudence, just be guided onto the straight path (sirat ul mustaqim) by her own understanding and be responsible only to Allah. There is enough space in Islam for enlightened understanding evolution of law in accordance with changing times and the process is called ijtihad. The Ulemas of various fiqhs close the gates of ijtihad and merely follow their respective fiqhs. They extol the virtue of taqlid, that is, merely submitting and following without application of mind to their fiqhs.

While the Shayara Bano judgment is welcome insofar as it sets aside the practice of talaaq-e-biddat, the protection accorded to the Muslim Personal Law on the grounds of freedom of religion is worrisome. The judgment has left minority citizens to either the mercy of cultural gate-keepers propagating taqlid or to a Parliament wherein the Hindu supremacists are in a majority—between the devil and the deep sea.

Three Learnel Judges of the Constitutional Bench accord protection to Personal Laws on the basis of Article 13 (1), which provides that only laws in force before the commencement of the Constitution can be declared void insofar as they are inconsistent with the Constitution. The CJI, Nazeer and Kurian JJ. held that the Muslim Personal Law is not a ‘law’ within the meaning of the term, and therefore cannot be tested on the ground of inconsistency with the Constitution, including the fundamental rights.

Nariman and Lalit JJ. opined that Personal Laws operate under the Shariat Act, 1937 and therefore is a law as defined in Article 13 (3). Article 13 (3) (a) includes within the meaning of law even customs and usages having force of law within the territory of India. The Muslim Personal Law is not only customs and usages having the force of law within the territory of India, the customs and usages are also mandated under the Shariat Act, 1937. On both counts under Article 13 Muslim Personal Law is “law” as defined under Article 13 and therefore to the extent it is inconsistent with the fundamental rights under Part III of the Constitution, it is liable to be declared void and inoperative.

Operation of the Muslim Personal Law impacts 172 million Indians in important areas of marriage, divorce, maintenance, custody of children, testate and intestate succession, guardianship, adoption of children, etc. Can we leave this vast and important area of life to the whims of cultural gate-keepers and exclude it from important rights as equality, justice, right to life and liberty?

Religion may not be subjected to the challenges raised by rationalists or enlightened sensibilities; religion and ‘personal law’ may be perceived as it is accepted by the followers of the faith and not how another would like it to be as opined by the CJI and Nazeer J. However, should the cultural gate-keepers be allowed unrestrained freedom in the name of Personal Law and force a section of citizens, particularly women of the community, to live as slaves or second class citizens and the judiciary feels helpless to come to their rescue?

We are not against the Muslim Personal Law or any other personal law for that matter. They all have their strengths and are good for their followers. We firmly stand for diversity. However, so far as any provision of a personal law is inconsistent with the fundamental rights of the citizens, it should be held to be void. In the Shayara Bano judgment we have achieved only partial victory. We have to carry on the struggle till these religio-cultural gate-keepers are completely marginalised or they too are in consonance with the constitutional objectives.

The author is the Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. He can be contacted at any of the following three e-mails: forirf[at]gmail.com; irfanengi[at]gmail.com; csss.mumbai[at]gmail.com

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