Former Union minister Arif Mohammad Khan is known for his advocacy of reform in Muslim personal laws, including the ban on instant triple talaq. He was steadfast in his opposition to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), for putting pressure on the then Rajiv Gandhi government to overturn the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case in 1986. He resigned from government and subsequently had to leave Congress when the then government did not pay any heed to him. He spoke to The Sunday Guardian about Muslim laws and the role of the clergy among other issues. Excerpts:
Q: In terms of bringing reform among Muslims, what has changed since Shah Bano to Shayara Bano?
A: A lot has changed. The Muslim community and Muslim women in particular had a lot to say and they said it without anything holding them back. Men and women alike have supported the demand to set aside instantaneous triple talaq. We may not have seen mass protests in streets by Muslim women to ban what we refer to as triple talaq, but they were on television talking about their issues and there were small protests organised, too. Though the gatherings were never huge, but the progress and visibility of these women in public is not a small change. At the time of Shah Bano, a lot of women felt scandalised when I spoke to them about taking a stand, but now it did not require a lot of convincing to make them take a stand for themselves.
Q: Even the most learned people, who agree that instantaneous talaq was permissible but punishable under Caliph Umar, insist that in India, the argument is about letting the court interpret Shariat. What do you say about that?
A: If you don’t want the court to interpret the Shariat, then don’t ask the court to enforce the Shariat. If the state is responsible for implementing Islamic law, then who is responsible for interpreting the Shariat? If you don’t want intervention of any kind, then keep it personal. If you want the court to protect your right to practice your Shariat, then the court will have to look into what it is being asked to protect. Go for Uniform Civil Code. Hinduism had no provision for divorce or property rights, but they took it from Islamic practices. They benefited out of prescriptions from another religion.
Q: What is your view on criminalising instant triple talaq as suggested by the bill? Who will give alimony to the woman if the man is put in jail, a question that has been raised by the Opposition parties?
A: We need to understand that the purpose of this law is very limited. The constitutional and moral duty of the government is that the law of the land is not flouted. If a divorced woman is indigent, she has CrPC 125 to get her rightful allowance. For a normal case of talaq, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act 1986 is available. And the new Muslim women’s law will fulfil the limited purpose of discouraging men to practice instantaneous talaq.
Interestingly, the people who did not want the husband to be held accountable for allowance to his wife, today are concerned about how she will get her allowance if the husband goes to jail.
Q: Is the clergy solely responsible for the “backwardness” among Muslims, which is attributed to the conventional interpretation of Quran?
A: It is not “conventional interpretation of Quran”. What they have done is a pre-historic interpretation of Quran. There is no concept of the “middleman” in Islam. The connection between a believer and Allah is direct; it does not go through the clerics. But Congress did not want to deal with the Muslim community directly, so they created these “mediators”. The clerics were made to act as the middlemen who negotiate, thus the clergy’s priority is to continue to stay relevant, rather than bring reforms in the community.
Q: There is a modern nikahnama. Uzma Naheed drafted it, got approvals of major clerics and yet we don’t hear about it. Nobody is promoting it among the people. Why?
A: Have you forgotten what happened to Uzma Naheed after that? She was thrown out of the Muslim Personal Law Board. When you call it a “modern nikahnama”, it sounds too complex. A simple way to put it is that the Shariat gives a bride the right to state her conditions at the time of marriage in the marriage contract and, therefore, she and her family members should be knowledgeable enough to do so. My son got married recently and in his nikahnama, I had these conditions added that he would not take any other women other than his wife and if the need be to dissolve the marriage, then the Shariat would be followed without any innovations being made to the method. Simple. This is what the modern nikahnama is all about and yet it has been kept unpopular, though it is perfectly capable of solving a lot of issues with the personal law.
“Interestingly, the people who did not want the husband to be held accountable for allowance to his wife, today are concerned about how she will get her allowance if the husband goes to jail.”
Q: In one of your earlier interviews, you had flagged the role of Najma Heptullah in convincing Rajiv Gandhi to supersede SC’s judgement in the Shah Bano case.
A: Rajiv Gandhi was a progressive man and a thorough gentleman. There is no doubt that if he could, he would have depended on his own views. However, some senior Congress leaders had some points to make. I remember clearly the words of Narasimha Rao when he said to Rajiv Gandhi that “We are not the reformers for Muslims. They vote for us, so why should we make them unhappy?” Other leaders who played a key role at the time were Arjun Singh and Narayan Dutt Tiwari. Such arguments made Rajiv Gandhi think. Because these were very wise and experienced senior leaders of Congress; had they not intervened, his decision would have been different.
Q: But because of all this you too ended up leaving the Congress...
A: I did not leave the Congress. I only resigned from my position in the government. But the political culture of our country is such that it becomes difficult for a person to stay in the party after doing something like that. I continued to stay in the party and went as far as voting for the motion as the whip, though I found it obnoxious. So, I voted for the measure, but it did not mean that I will stop my campaign. I continued with my campaign and I was thrown out of the party.
Q: And then you joined BJP...
A: I did not join BJP. I was invited to join BJP. I had written a letter to former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee after 2002. Then he sent Rajat Sharma to ask me if I only wanted to criticise the government or if I wanted to help the government make things better. So, I decided to accept the invitation. But I told them that I would join BJP when elections were around, so then that happened in 2004.
Q: Why did you leave BJP?
A: After I had lost the election from the BJP seat, I could see that things were working differently. Whatever ideas BJP had for me, did not suit me. They were not clear about what path they had for me. They had appointed me as chairperson for some commission, I cannot recall what it was, but I was least interested in it.
Q: So no regrets on ending things with Congress?
A: Not at all. I had a stand to take. I stood by it. If the political culture would have been different, I might have continued to stay in Congress, even after resigning from my position as the Union Minister. But to be able to do something, one does not necessarily have to be in politics. All the work I wanted to do, I still managed to do. Yes, I might have had more power if I had continued my term in politics, but I still have people who listen to what am talking about.
Q: The Opposition has maintained that the environment of the country is changing for the worse in terms of arguments surrounding nationalism, vigilantism, love-jihad etc. Your comments.
A: Isn’t that the narration of every political party when it has to sit in Opposition? Everything is good if it is happening under your rule, but when the other party is in power, you can feel that the environment has changed for the worse. Congress has its fair share of losses. And while BJP won on the promise to eradicate corruption and black money, we have not seen anything significant materialise on that front yet. The record for exploiting the communal sentiment was first violated by the Congress. They started aligning themselves first. All the parties came later. They were a national party and they failed to set the right standards.
Q: How do you think the Ayodhya dispute can be settled ?
A: The Prime Minister’s day starts with briefing by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). On 15 January 1986, the announcement was made that Congress would bring in legislation to overturn the SC’s judgement in the Shah Bano case. The next three days proved tumultuous for Rajiv Gandhi as the briefings of IB and RAW came to his office. Then on 1 February, the locks of the Babri Masjid were opened and the Parliament session was about to start on 5 February. I met Rajiv Gandhi on 6 February and told him that everybody will forget Shah Bano eventually, but the Babri Masjid issue will become a festering sore. But he told me that Muslim leaders will not protest. That is when I realised that Ali Miyan (the late Abdul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi, former chairperson of AIMPLB) had given a statement on 3 February that one masjid does not matter, many other masjids can be built anywhere else. And as long as Rajiv Gandhi was alive, AIMPLB never intervened in the Babri Masjid matter. So, for Muslims, it was Shah Bano and for Hindus it was Babri Masjid. So my understanding is that there was a deal. It should be treated as such. Build the temple.