Saturday, October 15, 2016

Equality and religion

It was the year 1982 when Bollywood blockbuster Nikah was released. The movie touched upon the subject of interpretation of talaq or divorce in the Muslim community. Interestingly the movie was originally named, Talaq Talaq Talaq but was later renamed Nikah. The fear being a Muslim husband telling his wife about the plans to watch Talaq Talaq Talaq on the weekend and ending up divorcing her.

The movie was a reflection of the then prevailing social mood. The Shah Bano case was hotly debated in the press. Just two years ago in 1982, the Madhya Pradesh High Court had given Shah Bano an enhanced maintenance of ₹179.20 per month.

In 1985 a division bench of the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision of Madhya Pradesh High Court of the enhanced alimony to Shah Bano. In 1986, the government of Rajiv Gandhi passed an act, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 to dilute the Supreme Court judgement and effectively refuse alimony. Apparently to protect the Muslim vote bank. It is 2016 and things have not changed since.

Recently the Supreme Court, which is hearing petitions from four Muslim woman (including one Shayra Bano) demanding a ban on the practice of Triple Talaq and polygamy has demanded a response from the union government on the issue. As we see, between two Banos, separated by three decades the issue still persists. The plight of Salma Agah in Nikah is still relevant.

The union government in its affidavit has effectively opposed the practice of triple talaq and termed it as a hurdle to gender equality. In the affidavit the government has cited many cases from India and abroad and has even listed down the countries where such practices are banned. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which is an NGO and has no authority on Muslim personal law, too has filed an affidavit where they cite the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 as sufficient to protect a divorced woman. The irony is that an act, which was meant to dilute the decision of Supreme Court is being cited to the same court as an excuse.

But is the current debate about gender equality or infringement of religious rights? Or about equality of the individual? Many people are making it a Muslim issue and some so called feminists are actually siding with regressive organisations like the AIMPLB because the government of the day is not to their liking. The article by Flavia Agnes in Economic & Political Weekly, a left leaning publication is a case in point. In her May 2016 article she blames Shayra Bano for not using the existing “remedies” available to her and. “why did Shayara Bano accept this torture for 15 years”? She asks. Much like the people who question the courage of women who report rape long after it has taken place. She also paints her lawyer as “little known” and seeker of “instant fame”. The self-proclaimed liberal and socialists like the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPIM) go on to say that the Supreme Court’s recommendation of a uniform civil code will be a threat to national integration.

The point such people are missing is that it is not about the “majoritarian oppression” or “homogenization” as they like to call it. It is about providing equal rights to all the citizens. Be it Flavia Agnes or the CPIM or the AIMPLB, they are acting on personal and political agenda instead of working towards creating a society where an individual’s religion does not decide how they are treated.

In matters of personal laws like marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody there are different laws for different religions. While a Muslim woman may be forced to share her husband with another woman only because as a Muslim the personal law allows polygamy. On the other hand a Hindu woman is legally protected from polygamy. A Muslim or a Christian family is not allowed to file their income taxes as a unit, while a Hindu Undivided Family can file its income tax as a unit. There is uncertainty about divorces ordered by the ecclesiastical courts, since they are not recognised by the law. Former attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, while appearing on behalf of the petitioner, in Supreme Court to recognise the ecclesiastical courts cites the Muslim personal law and the practice of triple talaq as an excuse.

The matter of abolishing personal laws in favour of a single civil code should be seen as not just gender equality but as the equality of the individual. We do not need laws based on religion. We need laws based on equality, laws that are in sync with the times we live in. Imagine a lunatic Hindu, petitioning the Supreme Court seeking reinstatement of Sati because it is a “religious practice”.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Saudi Vision 2030, also known as Utopia

Mohammed bin Salma, the thirty year old deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has just announced his country’s transition to Utopia. He calls it, Saudi Vision 2030. The concept essentially envisages a day when the Saudis will learn living without oil, or rather the money earned from oil. To achieve this a sovereign wealth fund is on the anvil. When created it will have assets worth US$ 2 trillion (according to IMF estimates, India’s GDP for the year 2015-16 was US$ 2.4 trillion). Bin Salman, second in line to the throne, also hinted at social reforms in an ultra-conservative country. He touched upon sensitive matters like women’s rights. He wants the country to start living off oil, 2020 onward. This means reducing subsidies and introducing taxes. All This will happen in just about three and a three quarters of a year from now. 
Such news makes extremely good global PR. You can read the coverage by Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Economist, etc. But the PR apart, is the Kingdom ready for the bold steps the prince proposes? Indian Affair thinks it is not. Here is why –

The foundation
The entire euphoria the prince is trying to generate is based on an assumption that 5% of Aramco (the state oil company and apparently the largest corporation in the world) will fund the Saudi Utopia. However the problem is that no one knows what the actual worth of Aramco really is. There are no records in public domain and given the oil prices plummeting to US$ 40 a barrel, the crude under Aramco’s control might be worth much less now. Another problem is the location of oil. Most of the oil in Saudi Arabia sits on its eastern coast. That is also the region with a restive Shia  population (who are systematically persecuted by the Sunni majority). The most serious of the problems is transparency. In his prerecorded telecast the prince did not give details of how the wealth fund will be created or how the citizens will be impacted by subsidy cuts. The economic situation of the country is not pretty. Various reports suggest a huge budget deficit in the range of 13% - 15% for the year 2015. The country is expected to run high budget deficit in the next four years. The foundation of the dream is indeed shaky.

The society
Saudi Arabia is the most populous of all the GCC countries. With a large population comes the responsibility of feeding it. The Saudi citizens get unimaginable subsidies like a tax free income (both personal and corporate), heavily subsidized food (the price of a three liter milk can, at SAR 10, has not changed since at least 2010), cheap petrol and no taxes like VAT, GST or sales/service tax. These subsidies however benefit even the resident expats. On top of these are subsidies for overseas education, a lavish unemployment allowance (estimated 30 – 40% youth unemployment), soft loans to purchase residential land, a free hand in importing cheap labour from Asia, protection from foreign competition by forced partnerships with local firms (HSBC is called SAAB in Saudi Arabia), etc.

I shalt take back the subsidies from thee
Photo courtesy - Bloomberg
Like all authoritarian regimes (the Communists, the theocracies and monarchies), Saudi Arabia too has bought legitimacy by bribing its citizens with freebies. Take these freebies away from them and the subjects will rise and challenge the authority. The recent hike in water and petrol prices met with strong Twitter protests (the only uncensored protest platform). Such was the outburst that the minister for water and electricity was sacked, for his “poor handling of price increase". One can only imagine how the citizens will react if the government introduces taxes, while at the same time asks the unemployed to forego the allowance and actually work.

The women in Saudi Arabia are a suppressed lot, mandatory covering up in the abayya, no driving, male consent for surgery and overseas travel, arbitrary divorce, no jobs and so on. While the prince has some bright ideas to emancipate women, slowly; certain sections of the society might not be ready for such reforms, that they might find “radical”.

Saudi Arabia was far more liberal in the 70s than it in the twenty first century. But things changed after the siege of Mecca in November 1979, the same year the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty. Post the siege the monarchy was forced by the Wahhabis to impose an austere or rather a radicalized version of Islam on its people. Public beheadings are common and laws are not codified. Social changes proposed by the prince might face stiff resistance from the powerful Wahhabis and the citizens alike. Weaning off a population addicted to freebies and alienating the clergy can be an explosive mix in a conservative country like Saudi Arabia.

The Utopia
The target of 2020 to start living without oil money is not ambitious by foolhardy. The general population has long resented the lavish lifestyle of the royal family. The stories of the king and his entourage spending millions on shopping in Marbella have earned enough bad press. The people feel that the royal family is having a good time at the cost of its own citizens. Now when the prince finally promises them Utopia, he wants to make their lives more miserable by cutting down subsidies and imposing taxes. A double whammy.

There are far too many risks in implementing the plan 2030. The risk of the citizens turning against the monarchy, the expats not willing to come to the country because the social reforms are too slow for their comfort and cost of living too high post the economic reforms and finally the clergy denouncing the establishment of walking away from the religion.

The environment
The reforms apart, the monarchy will have to survive in the dynamic environment the world is functioning. It has to survive the drastic steps that are being taken around the world to minimize oil dependency. Commercial nuclear fusion energy is in sight in a few decades, countries are planning to ban oil run cars, bio fuels are tested for both cars and aircraft and solar is coming up in a big way. India plans to add 20,000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2020.

Given the global aversion of oil dependence and a reducing crude price, the US$ 2 trillion wealth fund looks a bit too far away. What looks scarily close is the Corniche in Jeddah, swarmed by the Saudis seeking elections to the presidential office.