Shah Bano Begum, Shariat & Communist Kerala
We will marry as we please/twice or thrice, we don’t care
If EMS dare stopping us/we will marry his spouse too
This is a rough translation of the crude and outrageous slogan that was chanted by the Indian Union Muslim League workers, all across Kerala back in 1985 as CPI(M) ideologue and former Kerala chief Minister EMS Namboothiripad had put his weight behind Shahbano Begum who was waging a legal battle for maintenance and fair divorce for Muslim women.
The court order and the subsequent political drama, in which the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi enacted the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce Act), 1986, a law that practically overturned the verdict.
With EMS being a staunch advocate of Shah Bano Begum’s case, the CPI(M) was the only major party in Kerala that supported the Supreme Court verdict and opposed the new Act, which came into force the next year. The outrage among the Muslim organisations in the state against EMS and his party was so intense, that the above-quoted sloganeering was never objected to by any leaders of the Muslim league or even the Congress for that matter.
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However, the CPI (M)’s political stance, which was dubbed as ‘truly secular’ at that particular period of time, did not go well with the Muslim organisations that allied with them too. All India Muslim League, the breakaway faction of the Indian Union Muslim League, who were partners with the CPI (M) for almost 11 years decided to quit the Left Democratic Front, in protest in 1985.
PM Aboobacker, the then AIML strongman said on August 15, 1985 that they were ‘smoked out of the LDF for their stand on the Shariat issue, asserting that the Marxists had no business to attack the Muslim faith and practices’. Later, the AIML got merged with the IUML and Aboobacker remained an IUML legislator until his death in 1993.
The Left parties, on the other hand, used the opportunity to showcase their real secular character as they went to face the elections in 1987 without any parties with a communal tinge in their fold. EK Nayanar, the late leader of the CPI(M) and former chief minister, even went so far as to say that they were beginning with a clean slate and that they would not have anything to do with communal parties even if they went into the wilderness. The Left Democratic Front, however, won the 1987 Assembly elections and Nayanar became the Chief Minister.
Thirty-five years down the lane, the CPI (M) and the LDF are facing a similar political situation with another court case related to the Shariat propping up and minority organisations breathing down its neck.
The Supreme Court has already sent notice to the state and Union governments on a special leave petition filed by the Khuran Sunnah society and others challenging the order of the Kerala High Court that disposed a writ petition to declare that the Muslims’ inheritance practices are in contravention with the principles of the Constitution. According to multiple sources close to the state government, the government’s stand was by and large in tune with the dominant Muslim organisations.
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It was evident from the cold response from the CPI (M) leadership when advocate C Shukkur, a prominent lawyer and party fellow traveller, and his wife Sheena Shukkur, director of the Law Department, Kannur University, decided to get married again under the Special Marriage Act of 1954, citing the disparity in the Muslim personal law. “That’s not an issue, the party needs to comment on it,” said PK Sreemathi, former minister and the central committee member of the party.
Even though the party leadership has not responded to it officially, women leaders of the party have taken up the issue with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and party secretary MV Govindan. According to a senior leader holding a high office in the state, the party “will discuss the matter in detail and will not be filing an affidavit in haste”.
On the other hand, the Opposition parties in the state, including the IUML, are waiting for an opportunity to pit the government against minorities. “We are committed to the Islamic Shariat and Muslim personal law which we believe is absolutely women-friendly,” opined Suhara Mampad, the newly elected invitee in the state committee of the IUML.
The holy Quran has envisaged the role responsibility and rights of the women, even in an age when girls were not allowed to live their life,” Suhara told The Federal. “We follow the Shariat and Muslim personal law which nobody has a right to amend to. Those who advocate for women’s rights are playing into the hands of the BJP government,” added the IUML leader.
“We have got into a precarious situation. Any decision on the issue of women’s inheritance under Muslim personal law would have serious repercussions in the present political context,” said a senior CPI(M) leader who could not comment openly on it as the party has not taken a decision on the matter. “2023 is not 1986 — any decision we take may prove advantageous to the fascist regime, so we will be treading carefully. That may be the reason why the party secretary chose to evade questions on this issue,” he added.
“You should keep in mind that when comrades EMS and Nayanar, chose to go without parties with the backing of minority religions, Babari Masjid was intact in Ayodhya, Gujarat was run by a so-called secular government, and the BJP had two members in the Parliament,” said the CPI (M) leader.
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The Congress, too, has not openly expressed its stand on the issue regarding the inheritance right of Muslim women. Ironically, it’s only the BJP which has openly supported the move by Muslim women organisations and the remarriage of Advocate Shukkur.
“The religious laws dealing with marriage and inheritance should be reformed,” opined BJP leader MT Ramesh. “Introduction of Uniform Civil Code only can solve the problems faced by Muslim women,” he said in a Facebook post over the issue, making no bones of his political intention.
The ‘holy wound’ & freedom of expression
In November 1986, the priests and nuns of Catholic Church staged massive prayer and protest demonstration at Trissur against a play’s title, Christuvinte aaram thirumurivu (The sixth holy wound of the Christ), based on the novel, ‘The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ’, by Nikos Kazantzakis. The play was adapted to Malayalam by PM Antony and staged by Sooryakanti Theatres, Alappuzha, and had been mounted on several stages across the state.
The church found it offensive to its faith and some of the faithful approached the court eventually getting the performance of the play banned. The Left parties, which were in the Opposition when the play was first staged, took a stance in favour of the freedom of expression, but ironically it was the LDF government in power when the High Court handed over the ban order to the play.
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Interestingly, it was G Janardhanakurup, the Left leader and one of the founders of Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC), who was instrumental in bringing the Communist party to power in 1957. As a member of the High Court-appointed panel, he opined that “freedom of expression should be tempered with consideration for matters of equal importance in public interest”, which the court took into serious consideration.
March, 2023 witnessed yet another protest and prayer by the Catholic Church, this time against yet another play from Alappuzha, Kakkukali, directed by Job Madathil, based on a short story by Francis Norohna. The demand is all the same — ban the play which portrays convents and nunnery in bad light. This time the government is yet to respond, but the CPI (M) as a party has made its stand clear.
“We do acknowledge the protest by the church, they can have differences of opinion with the play. There is nothing wrong with criticising something if it is felt that someone is being defamed through it. However, we can’t accept the demand that the play be banned or seen by no one,” said MV Govindan, CPI (M) state secretary.
The church is not at all happy with the party and they are planning multi-pronged remedies against the play being staged, including filing of law suits. A circular was read out in churches on last Sunday, warning the Left candidates that they do not enjoy the support of the church any more.
“A section of people is doing this to create issues out of non-issues,” said KV Abdulkhader, CPI (M) leader from Guruvayur. “This could have far-fetched implications and it is not innocent at all,” added the former MLA. Interestingly the Catholic organisations were getting overwhelming support from the Sangh Parivar supporters on social media platforms.
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“These are all part of a grand design,” believes Abdulkhader. “No wonder the Bishop of Thalassery is offering to vote for the BJP if they could hike the price of rubber,” he told The Federal. He was referring to the promise made by Bishop Joseph Pamplany of Thalassery archdiocese to support the BJP in Kerala and help the party get over the fact that it lacks an MP from the state.
With both the minority communities upping the ante over matters related to their respective faiths, the Left government is caught in a spot. The Sabarimala fiasco in 2018 and the election disaster have definitely made the Left parties more cautious on issues relating to faith and religion, as the Congress-led Opposition is playing the wait-and-watch game.