Long back in 1985 came a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, which gave way to controversies in the Muslim world Not only did the Shah Bano case [1985 AIR 945, 1985 SCC (2) 556] challenge Muslim personal (Sharia) law, it triggered a debate and paved the way for Muslim women’s fight for justice.
The facts of the case can be stated as; Shah Bano a lady from Indore was married to Mohd. Ahmed Khan in 1932. They had five children out of which 3 sons and 2 daughters. After 14 years of marriage Mohd. Ahmed khan married a younger woman. Thereafter, almost 62 year old shah bano was asked to leave her matrimonial home in 1975. Further, her husband promised to pay maintenance of Rs.200 per month in order to look after herself and her children. For almost 2 years Mohd. Ahmed Khan paid maintenance to her at the rate of Rs. 200 per month and then stopped paying her.
In April 1978, Shah Bano filed a petition against the husband under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Code’/ ‘CrPC’) in the court of the learned Judicial Magistrate (First Class), Indore, where she asked for maintenance at the rate of Rs. 500 per month. On November 1978 her husband gave an irrevocable talaq (divorce) to her. His defence was that she had ceased to be his wife by reason of the divorce granted by him and he therefore claimed to be under no obligation maintenance for her. In August, 1979 the learned Magistrate directed appellant to pay a princely sum of Rs. 25 per month to the respondent by way of maintenance. In July, 1980 in a revision application filed by the respondent, the High court of Madhya Pradesh enhanced the amount of maintenance to Rs. 179.20 per month. The husband further filed a Special Leave petition before the Supreme Court. His main contention in appeal was that after divorce any form of relation with the divorced wife is Haram as it is against will of God as well as Islam thus, he is not liable to maintain her.
Supreme Court’s Decision
On 3 February 1981, two judges mainly Justice Murtaza Fazal Ali and A. Varadarajan who first heard the matter, in light of the earlier decisions of the court which had held that section 125 of the Code applies to Muslims also, referred Khan’s appeal to a larger Bench.
Muslim bodies from all over India such as All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind joined the case as intervener. The matter was then heard by a five-judge bench composed of Chief Justice Chandrachud, Jangnath Misra, D. A. Desai, O. Chinnappa Reddy, and E. S. Venkataramiah.
Thereafter, on 23 April 1985, Supreme Court in a unanimous decision dismissed the appeal of Mohd. Ahmed Khan and confirmed the judgment of the High Court. Supreme Court held that “there is no conflict between Muslim Personal law and provisions of Section 125 on the question of the Muslim husband’s obligation to provide maintenance for a divorced wife who is unable to maintain herself.”
Moreover, court further referred to the Holy Quran where it held that “there was no doubt that the Quran imposes an obligation on the Muslim husband to make provision for or to provide maintenance to the divorced wife.”
Shah Bano, approached the courts for securing maintenance from her husband. When the case reached the Supreme Court of India, seven years had elapsed. The Supreme Court invoked Section 125 of Code of Criminal Procedure, which applies to everyone regardless of caste, creed, or religion. It ruled that Shah Bano be given maintenance money, similar to alimony.
Reaction to the judgment
The shah bano issue created tremendous heat among the people of India specially Muslims. The judgment, as claimed, became the centre of raging controversy, with the mass media turning it into a major national concern. The Shah Bano judgment elicited a protest from many sections of orthodox Muslims who also took to the streets against what they saw, and what they were led to believe, was an attack on their religion and their right to their own religious personal laws. With spokesperson of Muslim community leaders like; Obaidullah Khan Azmi, MJ Akbar and Syed Shahabuddin, They formed an organization known as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and threatened to agitate in large numbers in all major cities. Then the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to their demands and cited the gesture as an example of “secularism”