India parliament backs bill criminalising instant divorce

New Delhi (AFP) –


The Indian parliament's lower house Thursday passed a bill proposing jail time for Muslim men who try to end their marriages through the controversial "instant divorce", months after it was banned by the Supreme Court for violating women's rights.

The government legislation was passed despite strong resistance by opposition parties, completing the first step towards making the practice a criminal act in India.

Instant divorce or "triple talaq" is when a Muslim man ends his marriage by simply saying "talaq" (which means "you are divorced" in Arabic) three times in succession.

In August, India's Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and ordered the government to legislate against it.

The bill makes such divorce void and an offence carrying a fine and a jail term of up to three years.

It also proposes men financially support their divorced wives, who will get custody of any children.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Lok Sabha -- the Indian parliament's lower house -- that it was a "historic day" because the proposed law will end decades of injustice by granting gender equality to Muslim women.

He said the practice continues in India despite the Supreme Court ruling, forcing the government to quickly pass a law to "explicitly ban triple talaq".

But opposition politicians argued the proposed legislation overreaches by making instant divorce a criminal act, as matrimonial issues come under civil laws. They demanded a special committee review the bill.

But the Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Hindu nationalist government, which enjoys a majority in the house, brushed off the criticism.

The bill must now be passed by the upper house before becoming law.

A number of Muslim women had petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the unilateral power of Muslim men to end marriages instantly violates India's constitution by infringing on their fundamental right to equality.

Muslim women say they have been divorced over messaging apps like WhatsApp or in letters, leaving them without any legal remedy.

India has no uniform civil law for marriage, divorce and property. Its constitution allows followers of each faith to use their religious laws to govern such matters -- including 180 million Muslims, the largest religious minority in the Hindu-dominated country.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won a thumping majority in 2014 national elections, has long pushed for a controversial uniform civil code to be enforced in India, which has a history of religious violence.

But Muslims have historically opposed such a move, claiming it will erode their religious identity and violate the constitution that protects right to religious freedom.