July 26: The judges have spoken their mind, but the country’s most neglected are still where they were.
The Supreme Court’s advice to the government on Wednesday to explore possibilities of enforcing a uniform civil code has rekindled a debate on the continuation of personal laws in civil matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance. But in the din, the focus on one of the most neglected sections of society — divorced Muslim women — has been lost somewhat.
It has been 17 years since the Rajiv Gandhi government passed the controversial Muslim Woman Protection Bill in 1986 to overturn the apex court’s judgment in the Shah Bano case, in which the court granted her maintenance.
The act was passed after Muslim leaders, mainly the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, convinced Rajiv that Islamic laws did not permit former husbands to pay maintenance beyond iddat, the three-month period after divorce.
The act said cash-rich state Waqf boards would provide maintenance if Muslim divorced women were unable to sustain themselves. But till date, not a single woman has succeeded in getting Rs 500 a month as maintenance as envisaged by the act.
The destitute women failed to get monetary support because successive regimes at the Centre never got time to amend the Waqf act to make the new law operational. The Union ministry of social justice and empowerment, which has a supervisory role over the Central Waqf Council and state Waqf boards, somehow never got time or the political will to direct the state boards to ensure implementation of the law.
The Muslim leadership is as much to blame. The law board, which advocates “reforms from within”, kept discussing and debating islahe moishra (community reforms) but failed to even agree on a model nikaah nama (marriage contract) to make it legally tenable.
Most Waqf boards in the country are cash rich. They make huge profits but the benefits hardly ever reach the community. For instance, the annual turnover of the Haryana and Punjab Waqf board is about Rs 75 crore.
The Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa Waqf boards have more than 120,000 Waqf properties, but rampant corruption and political interference have made them defunct.
The law board, never short of raising issues like Ayodhya, privately admitted that women were in a legal limbo since the Shah Bano case but sought to blame the “social conditions” by saying that even the so-called liberal sections were indifferent. “That is our argument for the reforms from within. Mere enactment of laws would not change things. The society per se must be ready for reforms,” a board member said.
Meanwhile, the agony of the likes of Shah Bano continues.