Categories: Editorial

Polygamy Among Indian Muslims Must End

Having banned the practice of ‘triple talaq’ nearly seven months ago, the Supreme Court is now going to examine the constitutional validity of two other practices among Indian Muslims – polygamy and ‘nikah halala’ – on the plea of a Muslim woman. The woman has petitioned that though these practices come within the domain of personal law, they are not immune from judicial review under the Constitution. Two things that need to be noted with regard to polygamy in India are: Though practised with the claim to religious sanction, it was not widespread among Muslim men: only a small percentage of them practised it. According to the 1961 census, polygamy was practised by 5.7 per cent of Muslims. The latest figures on polygamy, released by the Third National Family Health Survey (NFHS) carried out in 2006 show that polygamy had come down to 2.55 per cent among Muslim men. Secondly, polygamy was a practice not restricted to Muslims. It was also found in Hindu, Christian and tribal communities. According to the 1961 census, polygamy was practised by 5.8 per cent of Hindus. By the time of Third NFHS in 2006, only 1.77 per cent of Hindu men were found polygamous.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has justified polygamy on the ground that it meets social and moral needs and the provision for it stems from concern and sympathy for women. The AIMPLB is right: Islam allows a man to have more than one wife, but this sanction is subject to certain conditions and has been misused by a small percentage of Muslim men to satisfy their sexual lust. The initiative to curb misuse of the sanction should have come from the Muslims themselves. The sanction for more than one marriage in the Koran came keeping in view the frequent wars that led to the death of a large number of able-bodied men. Their death left the women of their families without any men to look after them. The Koran thus allows polygamy with a noble aim: taking care of widows and unmarried orphan girls. Left without protection, the widows and daughters of dead soldiers would be oppressed by hunger and illness or forced to be street women.

It was obvious that a man who married more than one wife had to have sufficient resources to look after them. He had to have a large house and he had to have adequate food in the house. The Koran states that a man intending to take more than one wife is only allowed to do so if he treats each wife equally and that he must lavish his love and affection equally, and financially support each wife absolutely equally. However, in actual practice, the Muslim men who married more than one woman did not have the means to look after them and their children well: or even if they had, they did not give it to all of them. The result was that the noble aim behind polygamy was defeated: polygamy, instead of taking care of helpless women, ended up adding to the number of helpless women and poor and illiterate children. In view of such malpractices Turkey, Tunisia and a few other Muslim nations have outlawed polygamy and the practice is slowly dying out in major Muslim nations. However, a small percentage of Muslim men in India continued to practise polygamy and defeat the noble aim of the sanction in the Koran. It was for the Muslim community to stop the misuse of the sanction in the Koran. The AIMPLB should have taken the lead to stop it. If they had, the Supreme Court would not have come into the picture. It is expected that the AIMPLB will argue that the court case is interference in the Muslim personal law. It is a pity that when polygamous Muslim men did not fulfill the Koranic obligations the board did not punish those men.

The particular case the Supreme Court is going to hear concerns polygamy in the Muslim community. However, polygamy is a continuing practice in Hindu, Christian and tribal communities as well. Indian laws do not allow bigamy. If a person, man or woman, marries someone while remaining married to the first woman or man, the second marriage is considered null and void. Let us hope the Supreme Court does not just express concern over the chasm between the aim for which the Koran allowed polygamy and the aim for which Muslim men use it. Let us hope that they examine it in a broad spectrum and ban it in accordance with the constitutional provisions and values.

nt

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