The last week of August has been the week of the judiciary. Three landmark decisions have been made, of which two will have an impact on the futures of large sections of the populace.
On August 22, a Supreme Court bench ruled against the horrendous practice of instant triple talaq in a 3:2 split verdict. Though the bench only ruled that instant divorce, which three of its members held was a violation of Islamic law, is legally invalid, it is a step towards a uniform law.
But the noises have already begun, about minority rights being in conflict with the law of the land.
In 1985, a similar judgment of the Supreme Court, famously known as the Shah Bano case, was overruled by the enactment of a law by the then Congress government to appease the Muslim orthodoxy which it saw as a crucial vote bank.
In a democracy where non-Muslim women were entitled to maintenance from their ex-husbands, Muslim women were denied the same right because the Congress gave in to the pressures of an election year.
While the bhakts are keen to credit Modi and his men for the victory, we must remember that the government had nothing to do with the verdict. It was a fight by Muslim women for their rights. And while the verdict comes as a relief, the validity of the Islamic code has been upheld. We must hope that this government, and future governments, will not find themselves keen to appease a “minority” at the cost of a much more vulnerable minority – its women.
The second crucial judgment, and a unanimous one, was pronounced by a nine-judge bench on August 24, holding that the right to privacy is a fundamental right, guaranteed under Article 21 of the constitution.
The case was initiated in the context of the enforcement of the “voluntary” Aadhaar card, but the verdict does not automatically render the Aadhaar non-enforceable. The Centre must now convince the Supreme Court that forcing residents of India to put their biometric data on a single platform and link it to their bank accounts and phone numbers and driving licences and voter IDs and ration cards and PAN numbers is not a violation of their privacy.
It could also have an impact on the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises “unnatural sex” between non-heterosexual partners.
Yet, the Supreme Court judgment could be struck down by the enactment of a law.
When the BJP swept to power, Prime Minister Modi introduced several aphorisms, which we are yet to see in practice – among them was “Minimum government, maximum governance.”
The opposite was in evidence on August 25, when despite heavy security precautions, including the presence of Army personnel and central paramilitary forces to bolster the local police deployment, godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s followers went berserk and started a riot after a CBI court convicted him of rape.
More than thirty people were killed and around three hundred wounded over the weekend following the Goodman's conviction. Crowds which had been reportedly assembling in Panchkula for over a week set fire to public transport and news vans, attacked media personnel, looted government buildings, and clashed on the roads. The violence spread to the National Capital Region and parts of Haryana.
Through all this, the Punjab and Haryana High Court held the Manohar Lal Khattar government responsible for the breakdown of law and order following the verdict, and accused the government of not respecting the judiciary’s orders.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim enjoyed Z plus security cover until he was convicted. He has been photographed with the chief minister and other politicians over the years.
He has been sentenced to twenty years in jail, and it remains to be seen whether he will serve the term
The High Court accused the government of not respecting the judiciary’s orders.
Through the decades, the judiciary has often proven itself worthy of the faith citizens have in it. Yet, what is the use of a sensible judiciary when its decisions are not respected?
A case in point was jallikattu, the bloodsport which was banned in Tamil Nadu by the Supreme Court, which also went on to dismiss appeals against the ban.
After a shameful protest throughout the state earlier this year, the state government with the connivance of the centre, enacted a law which sanctioned the continued torturing of bulls for entertainment. Those who claim it is not cruel have been repeatedly proven wrong by video evidence collected by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Their response was to demand that PETA should be banned instead of jallikattu.
In the days following the Supreme Court’s ruling against the sale of cattle, a calf was killed in the streets of Kerala and people across the country rejoiced in flouting the apex court’s verdict, photographing themselves with plates of beef.
When the people can take on the judiciary, will its verdict be respected by a government which finds itself on the losing side?