"Taking an uncompromising stand on gender justice is not enough"
The Shah Bano judgement was a landmark in our social and political history for a large number of reasons.
Filing for maintenance under Section 125 had, and does, find favour among divorced women of all communities because there is more hope of speedy justice in the civil courts.
This case was different because Shah Bano's former husband was al awyer and could appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgements given in her favour by the lower courts.
Unfortunately, Chief Justice Y.V. Chandrachud delivered a verdict in Shah Bano's favour, but went on to make critical and offensive remarks about Islam. This elicited a protest from many sections of Muslims who also took to the streets against what they saw, and what they were led to believe, was an attack on their religion and their right to their own religious personal laws.
In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi led his party to victory but soon found his government faltering when his finance minister, V.P. Singh, levelled serious charges of corruption against the Congress.
Faced with a situation in which a huge number of Muslims were protesting on the streets and their leaders, including many in the Congress, were crying themselves hoarse that if the government did not enact a law in Parliament overturning the Supreme Court judgement, the Congress would face decimation in the polls ahead, Rajiv Gandhi took two political decisions which would have momentous and disastrous results: he pushed through an Act of Parliament which denied Muslim women the right to demand maintenance from their former husbands and gave the green signal to the Uttar Pradesh government to unlock the gates to the makeshift Ram mandir set up surreptitiously inside the Babri Masjid. Then, the premises were locked by the court while the case was sub judice.
This attempt to appease the fundamentalists of both communities gave the BJP an issue that ensured its future electoral successes based on successful communal polarisation; and an immediate electoral victory to the Janata Dal which benefited from Muslim anger being converted into votes.
The stage for Mandal and Mandir politics was set. The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) organised demonstrations of Muslim women against the move to deprive them of rights that they had hitherto shared with the Hindus but the question of gender justice was drowned in the babel created by communal forces.
It was most unfortunate that the BJP, a member of the Sangh Parivar that had opposed the Hindu Code Bill in the name of religion, was able to pose as a champion of women's rights and start a vicious campaign against the minorities, painting them as peoplewhorefused to respect the Supreme Court, who therefore had scant respect for the Constitution and who were anti-national. This campaign took them to power at the Centre and also destroyed the Babri masjid.
The sharp divisions and polarisation have not diminished with time. AIDWA learnt many lessons. Taking an uncompromising position on women's rights and gender justice is essential but not enough.
Broadening the reach of the organisation so that women from all communities come within its fold because they see that all aspects of their oppression are being recognised and opposed has become a major task. Also, religious fundamentalism is attacked and mobilised against because it divides women and denies them their rights and autonomy.
Ensuring gender equality within all religions is our aim. To achieve this, a process of reforms has to be initiated. Also, more secular laws such as the Domestic Violence Act ensuring justice for all women must also be enacted.