After supporting call for ban on practice, govt’s lawyer wants matter to be heard by constitution bench to decide on issue of religious rights and freedom.
New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has reversed its stated position on the custom of female genital mutilation (FGM), practised by the Dawoodi Bohra community, raising doubts over its claims to ensure justice for Muslim women.
Arguing in the Supreme Court Monday, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, representing the Centre, said the matter should be referred to a constitution bench to decide on the issue of religious rights and freedom.
He had previously supported seeking a ban on the practice saying the act is clearly a crime under Indian laws.
In a complete volte-face, the government threw its weight behind the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), a socio-religious group seeking continuance of the FGM practice.
The turnaround comes days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, who has supported the practice of FGM, at a 14 September event in Indore.
The practice, known as khafz in India, involves the cutting of the genitals of a girl child for non-medical reasons.
“The question which comes to our mind then is the Bohra beti not important and should a practice like FGM be allowed to continue?” read a statement by WeSpeakOut, one of the petitioners seeking a ban on the practice.
“Why has the PM who says he is so concerned about issues of Muslim women not raised the issue of FGM with the Syedna? And why has his government chosen to dither and delay any action aimed at banning this practice, rather than taking immediate steps to protect the young girls who are being cut every day?”
‘Re-framing the issue’
“The referral is an attempt to re-frame the issue from one of FGM being a violation of constitutional and human rights to that of a right to continue this discriminatory practice under the garb of religious freedom,” said the statement by WeSpeakOut.
“It is also clearly aimed at delaying a verdict in this case, in which arguments had already been extensively heard by the three-judge bench before which it was pending,” WeSpeakOut added.
But this isn’t the first time the government has gone back on its own stand on the issue.
In May 2017, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi came out in full support of women seeking a ban on the practice. In an interview, Gandhi said the practice is a criminal offence and if the Dawoodi Bohra community doesn’t end it voluntarily, the government would bring in a law to end it.
While there was no word from the WCD minister on the issue after her statement, the ministry in an affidavit said there is neither a prevalence of FGM in India today nor any studies on the same.
The DBWRF, which supports the practice, argues that khafz as practised in India is fundamentally different from FGM practiced in other parts of the world since the former involves a small nick on the skin of the prepuce, which is the fold of skin surrounding and protecting the head of the clitoris.
According to the DBWRF, a scratch on an arm cannot be compared to an amputation, and the two practices should not be mistaken as being the same.