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OUT OF COURT

Something that does not come within the law cannot be outlawed. The Supreme Courtís pronouncement on the fatwa appeared to reiterate this indirectly when it said that while religious courts and fatwas were not illegal per se, any attempt to impose a fatwa coercively was illegal. No one was bound to comply with a fatwa, neither could there be case in a court against anyone for such disobedience. There was no constitutional sanction for religious courts. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board had no problem with that, and said that these courts were an alternative dispute settlement system not in conflict with the judicial system in the land. Fatwas were opinions given by experts, not decrees, and the persons concerned were free to accept or ignore them.

All this sounds perfectly sensible. But the public interest litigation to which the court was responding was questioning the jurisdiction of religious courts that issued fatwas governing every aspect of the life of the minority community ranging from the dress code for women to the dissolution of marriage. How does the courtís statement on the exact status of fatwas suggest a resolution of the actual problem that the PIL points to? The Supreme Court has mentioned that the power of the fatwa comes from religion, and warns of the grave psychological impact it has on people who would wish to ignore it. If people feel bound to follow ó or feel guilty, or are outcast, if they do not follow ó an extra-legal non-decree, then the basic problem remains the same. Further, the court has reportedly said that a fatwa may be delivered only if an interested party asks for it, not a third party, as in the case of Imrana, who was ordered to regard her husband as her son and live with her father-in-law who had raped her by a fatwa issued at the behest of a stranger. This may be interpreted as giving the fatwa not legal, but some other sort of status, maybe out of respect to religion, although the logic is unclear. Would this have been acceptable if the husband had asked for it? However, the court has emphasized that the rights of individuals guaranteed by the law of the land should not be violated by any fatwa. It seems to agree with the AIMPLB that compliance is up to the individual. The court has kept strictly within its purview in its pronouncement on the fatwaís jurisdiction; the social cost of non-compliance was not part of its brief.