Gujarat elections: Triple talaq ruling apart, Muslim women don’t seem to buy the BJP’s saviour narrative

If the BJP’s 2014 general election hot-button issue was development and vikas, the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections are, among things, about women and talaq.

This month, two widely shared videos on Gujarati social media made a lot of people across the political spectrum sit up and take notice. The first video, widely denounced by human rights organisations, showed a young woman out alone at night. An azaan-esque call is heard, which is supposed to indicate how dangerous the situation is. It’s not actually the creepy soundtrack that you hear in slasher movies when the young heroine leaves the house at night but it’s meant to be close. It’s what they call a dog-whistle in American politics – political messaging that appears to mean one thing on the surface to most, but carries completely different undertones that may not be immediately visible to everybody.

Next, you see her parents at home (with a Krishna idol placed in the background), waiting for her anxiously. When she arrives, you’re informed that this is what Gujarat looked like 22 years ago, and that it may happen again if “those people” return.

The second video, released earlier this week, spells out the (false) claim of women empowerment even more blatantly. It has no time to dog-whistle. This one shows a Muslim woman chastising two Muslim men who come to her door for votes. When we’re introduced to the men, we hear bass music with threatening overtones. Aapa scoffs at them for remembering her only during election time, and scolds them for selling their izzat-haya for vote-bank politics. She tells them that until now, Muslim women had spent every second in fear of being divorced, and Narendra Modi was responsible for rescuing Muslim women from hell. Finally, Aapa “debunks” the claim that Modi is the sworn enemy of “our people”, lauding him instead as their saviour.

Both videos, which the BJP claims it has nothing to do with, propagate a message that the party cares about women. The second video takes the claim even further, and is basically the actualisation of a red herring we’ve been seeing for a while: That since the triple talaq judgment came out during BJP rule, the party alone is responsible for the victory that is the invalidation of triple talaq.

Of course, it must be said at this point again that neither video has been claimed by the BJP. Or by anyone else.

During the 2014 general election, for the first time, we saw a hint of the possibilities that the internet and social media hold for elections. Entire books, like Swati Chaturvedi’s I Am A Troll, have been written about the BJP’s army of paid trolls who helped skew public opinion with their social media activity in 2014. The nature of the internet, however, makes it impossible to trace these actions to their original sources (or to those paying their original sources), giving parties plausible deniability when their activities cause outrage.

Given the fact that they clearly tell you to vote for Modi and the BJP, it’s easy to imagine the videos came from party supporters. The videos also repeat the claim that the party and Modi are the saviors of Muslim women because they alone negated triple talaq, a claim that the BJP has been making.

This is a false claim that Muslim women’s groups have been fed up with for far longer than the new Supreme Court judgment on 22 August. In fact, the concept of largely Hindu political parties appropriating the causes of Muslim women for their own gains is one we’ve seen before. One recent instance was in the 80s, around the Shah Bano case, when Muslim women fought to codify a provision to guarantee maintenance to Muslim women. The Congress government in power dithered over the Bill for fear of upsetting the powerful male Muslim constituency.

Muslim women’s groups at the time had to tread carefully while garnering support for their cause, because they constantly had to make sure that the issue wasn’t being appropriated by the Hindu right. We hadn’t seen this phenomenon repeat itself quite this clearly in recent years, until the triple talaq judgment this August.

On 31 October, Bebaak Collective, a Muslim women’s rights collective, released a statement “condemning BJP appropriation of Muslim women’s voices” around triple talaq. This came after several BJP leaders, including Amit Shah and Subramanian Swamy, congratulated Muslim women after the triple talaq judgment, and made it sound as though this was a shared victory and a team effort by Muslim women and the BJP.

Bebaak’s statement correctly clarified that it was in fact “women’s groups (like BMMA, MWRN and Bebaak) who approached the court and not the current government who only filed an affidavit when directed by the court”. It said that the current government is clearly trying to “capitalise on the thirty five year long struggle of women’s movement, which stood by the Muslim community”.

Bebaak’s prescient statement predicted exactly what we’re seeing in Gujarat now. “It appears these stories (of the BJP liberating Muslim women from Muslim men) before the Gujarat elections and assembly elections (sic) of 2019 will strengthen the image of the current government as champion of women’s rights which will successively translate into winning election booths.” While pointing out that Muslim women “seem to have evoked this government’s sudden empathy”, they asked where the government was “when incidents of mass rape in Gujarat massacre and Muzaffarnagar riots were being pushed below the carpet or orchestrated”.

But as Bebaak and others have pointed out, the BJP hasn’t espoused or enacted any legislative measures that make the lives of Muslim women easier. It has also not taken any steps in that direction other than loudly pushing against triple talaq and, on a slow day, making some noises about implementing UCC.

In fact, the BJP’s planned next step on the triple talaq, which is to actively criminalise it, has also been opposed by some Muslim women’s groups like Bebaak, who feel that it will be used as yet another tool to target and imprison Muslim men. Other women’s groups, like BMMA, have spent over three decades working for the criminalisation of triple talaq, and are canvassing support for the comprehensive codification of Muslim Personal Law.

This clearly stated, but not nearly as shiny, demand by Muslim women’s groups has of course been pretty much ignored by the BJP. Maybe it just doesn’t make for good enough election advertising.