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The Struggles Of A Muslim Modernizer, The Telegraph

In different but complementary ways, the debate on triple talaq, and the debate on cow slaughter, both demonstrate the medievalist mindset of modern India.

Why, when even the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has abolished the pernicious practice of triple talaq, has India not done so? Largely because the leadership of Indian Muslims is in the hands of bigots and reactionaries, not progressives and modernizers.

To to be sure, there have been exceptions, of brave individuals who sought to promote reason and justice among their fellow Muslims. One such modernizer was the Marathi writer Hamid Dalwai. In a brief life (he died in his early forties), Dalwai worked tirelessly to get Muslims to shed their social and religious prejudices. The pursuit of gender equality was of pre-eminent importance to him; and he waged a long battle against triple talaq.

In 1969, Dalwai spoke at a conference of Muslim leaders in Pune. Here he remarked that ‘every new religion introduced its own rules and code of conduct to be followed by its believers. But if these centuries-old rules are no longer adequate and relevant to the present day they should be reviewed. … [I]the laws, even if they are religious laws, are incapable of granting proper justice, then they need to be changed’.

Dalwai’s words enraged a local patriarch known as ‘Dada Master’. ‘Mr. Dalwai, what you mean?’, shouted Dada Master: ‘Everything in this world can change except Muslim law.’ To this statement of dogma Dalwai calmly replied: ‘We have a selfishly selective memory. You are all aware that the British abolished the separate Hindu and Muslim Penal Code and introduced a common Indian Penal and Procedure Code. The religious criminal codes had pronounced stricter punishment for the errants and there was no scope for criminals to improve their behavior. This has now been changed to softer punishments and increased opportunities of improvement. When the British changed the penal code why didn’t anyone oppose it? Weren’t you happy that punitive measures such as cutting off your limbs were abolished and you were safe? Am I wrong when I say this?’

When a supporter of Dada Master claimed that ‘Islam has considered men superior to women. It considers men responsible for women’s well being’, Dalwai responded:

‘Time will never forgive us if we do not pay attention to this issue now. Regarding the equal rights of women, let us remember that a number of Islamic nations have replaced the Muslim code by more equitable laws. Even in our country all other laws except those related to women have been transformed’.

This exchange is recorded in the memoirs of an eyewitness. His name is Sayed Mehboob Shah Qadri (alias Sayedbhai) and his account of his own heroic struggle against orthodoxy was first published in Marathi in 2001 under the title Dagadawarchi Perani (which translates as Sowing on the Rock). A revised version, entitled Jihad-e-Triple Talaq: Our Battle Against Triple Talaq, was published in English in 2014 by Mumbai’s Samakaleen Prakashan.

Sayedbhai was born in Hyderabad, but grew up in Pune, where his father worked in an ammunition factory and his mother worked as a domestic help. He himself had to drop out of school early and, at the age of thirteen, take a job in a pencil-making unit. Shortly afterwards, his elder sister Khatija was given triple talaq by her husband, and had to bring herself and her children to her parents’ home. This incident left a deep impression on her brother.

Seeing his sister seek to rebuild her life, and become a seamstress to feed herself and her family, made Sayedbhai confront the patriarchy within Islam. ‘Why does the male alone possess the right to divorce [through triple talaq]?’, he asked himself. He raised the question with Maulvis and Imams, who dismissed it (and him). Meanwhile, Sayedbhai fell in with a group of Socialists in Puné, who were working actively to end gender and caste discrimination. Through them he came to know and meet Hamid Dalwai, and became one of his closest associates.

In March 1970, Hamid Dalwai and his colleagues formed the Muslim Satyashodak Mandal. They were inspired by the great 19th century social reformer Jotiba Phule, who had set up the Satyashodak Mandal to combat caste and gender discrimination. This new Mandal, said Dalwai at the inaugural function, had as its objectives ‘creating a spirit of nationalism free of religious prejudices among the Muslim community and establishing modern human values of social equality within it’ . The Mandal was very active in its early years, holding many meetings across India, as described in this book.

Hamid Dalwai died in 1977, in his early forties. The struggle against Islamic patriarchy was carried on by his courageous widow, Mehrnissa Dalwai, and by his associates such as Sayedbhai. They faced, as Dalwai himself had, verbal as well as physical attacks from reactionaries within their faith.

In the 1980s, Sayedbhai identified himself with the struggle of Shah Bano, travelled to Indore to meet her, and organized a felicitation function in Puné to honour her. In support of Shah Bano’s pursuit for justice, Sayedbhai met several times with Rajiv Gandhi, despairing of the professedly modern-minded Prime Minister’s capitulation to the Islamic orthodoxy, which had told him that if he did not overrule the progressive Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case, ‘the Congress party would not be able to get a single [Muslim] vote in the subsequent elections’.

Neither his mentor’s death nor the reversal in the case of Shah Bano deterred Sayedbhai. He continued his battle against triple talaq through the 1990s and into the present century. When I met him earlier this year in Puné, I was deeply impressed by his talk and by his bearing, a rather special combination of dignity without bitterness.

Aside from Dalwai, the heroes of Sayedbhai’s memoir are the secular, modern-minded, socialists of Maharashtra, both men and women. In his early years, Sayedbhai was deeply influenced by the socialist activist Bhai Vaidya. Later on, he was greatly helped by the remarkable socialist-feminist Pramila Dandavate. The Socialists of Puné and Maharashtra were patriotic unlike the Marxists, principled unlike the Congress, and non-communal unlike the Sanghis and the Shiv Sainiks. And they worked tirelessly for the emancipation of women. Once so influential, their decline and now near-total disappearance from political life has been a real setback for the progress of democracy in India.

Sayedbhai himself was born poor and working class. He left school well before matriculation. In the preface to his memoir he writes: ‘I was not so fortunate as to receive formal education beyond the primary level. I have hardly been to a proper school. But the lessons I learnt in the school called life have been so important’. They have, indeed. His wisdom and his courage put to shame the highly educated, Harvard and Oxford trained, lawyers of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, who have used legal sophistry to oppose the granting of full equality to Muslim women.

In his book, Sayedbhai quotes from a speech by the great scholar of Islamic law and jurispudence, A. A. A. Fyzee, made in Puné in August 1970. ‘In a modern world’, remarked Fyzee’, ‘we shall not be able to follow religious laws in a blind manner. Certain points about which the Koran speaks of are timeless but there are certain other aspects which were suitable in the past when Islam originated. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the commands given in the Koran only after testing their appropriateness in the current situation’.

In that speech in Puné, Fyzee also made a specific observation about the law. Thus he stated: ‘Religion and law should be completely separated and be made mutually exclusive’. This should be a guiding maxim of modern democracies. Hamid Dalwai himself argued that social reformers should neither base themselves on, nor target, any particular religion; rather, they ‘must take an intellectual stand that anything which is outdated and does not stand the test of reason should be avoided’.

In the past, women such as Mehrnissa Dalwai and Shah Bano played a critical role in the struggle for gender equality within Indian Islam. In the present, that struggle is led by women themselves, as in the activists of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. But let us not forget the brave male pioneers who also defied the patriarchs of the community. Sayedbhai writes ruefully towards the end of Jihad-e-Triple Talaq: ‘While history glorifies all those who have worked to reform the society, they are condemned while they are actually carrying out the work’. Hamid Dalwai and A. A. A. Fyzee, not to speak of Sayed Mehboob Shah Qadri himself, must not and will not be forgotten.



Ramachandra Guha

(published in The Telegraph, 8th July 2017)