“Shariat Courts”

A two-member bench of the Supreme Court on 8 July rejected a PIL filed by a Hindutva agent calling for the abolition of “Shariat Courts” which, it claimed, run a parallel judicial system in the country. The court, while rejecting the petition, stressed that these panels had no “legal powers” and their decisions could not be enforced. The apex court further observed that Islamic “judges” (qazis), who interpret religious law, could only issue a ruling when individuals submitted voluntarily to them and their decisions, or fatwas, were not legally binding. The judgment further said, “Sharia courts are not sanctioned by law and there is no legality of fatwas in this country”. During an earlier hearing of the case the court had observed, “These are political-religious issues. We can't decide them. In this country some people believe Gangajal can cure all ailments. It is a matter of belief.”

While some people correctly understood the import of the verdict, semi-lettered commentators on both sides drew illogical conclusions. While some Maulvis, who speak without fully understanding the issue at hand, started shouting that this is an interference in Muslim personal law which cannot be tolerated, their Hindutva counterparts blew into their shankhs taking the verdict as a great victory which never was since the court did not ban or abolish the so-called “Shariat Courts”.

What the Supreme Court said was simply that these so-called “Shariat courts” do not enjoy any status under Indian law and that they cannot force Muslims to obey them - which is exactly the case. No one said these panels enjoy the de jure status of the courts set up under the Indian legal system or that these panels enjoy any legal or even social sanctity to enforce their “verdicts”. The fact is that these panels are voluntary arbitration committees or panchayats; people approach them out of their free-will and they are never bound by their verdicts. In fact, many parties reject such panels' verdicts and go to civil courts for the settlement of their disputes.

The problem is with the nomenclature. These panels, called “Darul Qazas” (House of Settlement), should not be translated as “Shariah courts”. The correct term would be Shariah Panchayat or Shariah Arbitration Committee. So it is a problem of our own making. These panels are a boon for the judicial system as they take some burden off the courts. In fact, our judicial system encourages arbitration panels for out-of-court settlement of disputes. Darul Qaza is an informal forum to which people go voluntarily to avoid high costs of seeking justice in our courts and also to get a Shariah-compliant verdict. Its verdicts is just an opinion and is not legally binding. And this is a reason for the unpopularity of these panels. Muslims normally do not go to Darul Qazas because these bodies don't have any enforcement power. Since its inception in 1994 to 2010, Delhi Darul-Qaza settled only 341 cases.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 July 2014 on page no. 1

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