Do we believe that women belonging to India’s minority community deserve the gifts of equality, justice and dignity guaranteed by the Constitution of India? If so, we urgently need to talk about the politics of Badruddin Ajmal and what it means for Assam and, perhaps, everywhere else in India.
On Tuesday, the Congress joined hands with Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Left parties and the Anchalik Gana Morcha to announce a six-party grand alliance to take on the BJP in the Assembly polls to be held later this year. In the previous state polls in 2016, the AIUDF had secured a healthy 13 per cent vote share and won 13 seats. Badruddin Ajmal, who is a perfume baron and a religious scholar, is an iconic figure among Muslims in several parts of lower Assam and the Barak Valley. If the grand alliance were to come to power, it is likely that Ajmal will have a controlling stake, dictating terms to the state government. He might even be a contender for the post of the chief minister.
Ajmal’s track record
A couple of years ago, Badruddin Ajmal went on record praising the custom of Nikah Halala. Before divorcing a wife a third time, the husband would know that she would have to sleep with another man before he has a chance of remarrying her. As such, it would prevent a man from acting in haste, which ultimately helps women.
Such utter denial of the sexual agency of women, as well as their right to marry or divorce, is disturbing to say the least.
But Ajmal does not stop there. In 2019, Ajmal called on Muslims to ignore the state government’s two-child policy. His justification, as with supporting Nikah Halala, is religion. Ajmal has studied religion (Islamic theology) from the Darul Uloom Deoband seminary.
Who bears the brunt?
Who bears the brunt of such ill-informed thinking? Women. Having too many children interferes with the health of women as well as their prospects for establishing economic independence. It also leads to large-scale poverty and increases the state’s spending burden. Who will this affect the most? Those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Incidentally, in the 2013 Sample Registration Survey (SRS), Assam had shown the worst maternal mortality ratio (MMR) among all major states. However, in the last few years, the state has posted a significant decline in maternal mortality ratio, from 300 in 2013 to 175 in 2017. The MMR is the number of maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The gains made in the last decade could now face a threat.
For large sections of the intelligentsia, Badruddin Ajmal may be easy enough to ignore. He heads a small regional outfit in the much-neglected northeastern part of India. But it is precisely in these far-flung places, away from the constant media gaze, that the most important battles for gender equality and women’s dignity need to be fought. It is a moral imperative. And for what it’s worth, an economic imperative as well. Without women having autonomy, a prosperous society is not possible.
Don’t ignore rights of women
For 15 continuous years during which the Congress was in power in Assam, the late Tarun Gogoi always kept the AIUDF at arm’s length. But now, the party is more willing and more desperate to shift stance. In the often-perverse idiom of Indian politics, one can expect that the AIUDF will soon be dubbed secular, liberal and progressive. The news of the grand alliance in Assam was covered prominently. It is distressing that Ajmal’s problematic politics, his worrying stance on women’s rights is not even a part of the discussion. Have we become so obsessed with the arithmetic of elections that we no longer care about dignity for all?
Where does this leave women, especially women from the minority community? In the desperation to see the BJP out of power, their right to dignity is being forgotten altogether. This would certainly not be the first time this has happened in India. In fact, there has hardly been any progress on the legal rights of Muslim women since Independence. But if people such as Badruddin Ajmal take center stage, a repeat of the Shah Bano disaster cannot be ruled out. Several decades ago, India failed a 62-year-old woman, a victim of triple talaq, who was seeking a small maintenance for herself. Let us make sure we never get there again.
(The writer is a mathematician, columnist and author. Views expressed are personal.)