DEOBAND, India (Reuters) - When Narendra Modi stood before faithful followers in October, on a stage swathed in the saffron colors of his Hindu nationalist movement, the Indian leader made an unexpected overture.
“It is the responsibility of the government and people of the country to give justice to Muslim women,” the prime minister declared.
Modi’s public political career took off as chief minister of Gujarat state in 2001, just before rioters killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, leading to accusations that he turned a blind eye to the murder and rape going on around him.
Modi denies involvement in the 2002 riots, but his rise to national power in 2014 was accompanied by groups of hardline Hindus attempting mass conversions of Muslims and cases of beating and whipping of Muslim men in broad daylight.
Now, his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is challenging an Islamic practice, known as “triple talaq”, that allows a man to divorce his wife simply by uttering the word “talaq” three times.
The proposal is a bold ploy to win approval and votes from Muslim women and chip away at an important bloc of voters - there are around 170 million Muslims in India - that has thus far viewed Modi with suspicion.
The outreach could help decide the outcome of a bellwether state election early next year. Uttar Pradesh, with nearly 40 million Muslims out of 200 million people, is a key test of Modi’s popularity as he prepares to seek a second term in 2019.
Some Muslim women there have said they support Modi’s proposal, although they are less sure about him.
There is fierce opposition, meanwhile, from influential Muslim elders and teachers.
“They are using this tactic to attack Islam, to attack Muslims,” said Abul Qasim Nomani, vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom Deoband madrassa, the largest Islamic seminary in India, located in Uttar Pradesh.
“Muslim women are being used as showpieces to fight a battle against Islam,” added the 70-year-old, his face framed by a white beard and prayer cap.
A madrassa official sitting beside him muttered: “This is like a wolf advocating for the rights of goats.”
Triple talaq is banned in some Muslim countries, including India’s neighbor and rival Pakistan, but is allowed under Indian rules designed to protect religious communities.
The BJP and its ideological surrogates are betting that by confronting divisions within India’s Muslim population about those traditional divorce practices, they can win in two ways.
The move will appeal to the Hindu majority, by emphasizing the need to counter Islamic influence in society, while at the same time splintering off Muslim voters.
That may help Modi curb electoral damage from another big political gambit - the recent abolition of high value banknotes that has led to cash shortages and dented key sectors of the economy.
It is difficult to tell on the streets of Uttar Pradesh, a poor state where water buffalos trudge through wheat fields and traffic alike, how much traction Modi and his Hindu supporters will get from the initiative.
His coalition won 10 percent of the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh during 2014 national elections, according to a post-election survey by the non-partisan Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
A separate survey covering 10 other states found last year that 92 percent of Muslim women supported a ban on the immediate triple talaq divorce, raising the possibility that some, in the moment of pushing a voting machine button, might defy their community and choose the space next to the BJP’s lotus flower.
The chairwoman of the Muslim women’s advocacy group that did the national survey, Zakia Soman, ran children’s schools in the relief camps for victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
“It is true that Muslims can’t trust him (Modi) after the Gujarat riots, but triple talaq is a separate issue,” Soman said in a telephone interview.
“Muslims will have to compartmentalize each issue for their own well being ... if the prime minister does the correct thing and thinks of (the) greater good, then it is natural for him to win votes from Muslim women.”
The idea of expanding an existing article of the nation’s constitution that calls for a “uniform civil code” to one that explicitly bans polygamy and the use of triple talaq in the Muslim community has been debated for decades.
As it stands now, that section of the constitution says a code should exist but does not describe its parameters.
Modi’s government, though, has signaled that it wants to change the status quo.
A senior BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh said the party planned to highlight triple talaq during election campaigning there. The government filed a motion in support of a Supreme Court case this year in which a Muslim woman opposed triple talaq.
And in October, the nation’s Law Commission issued a public statement inviting formal discussion on the uniform civil code.
Indresh Kumar, who heads a division dedicated to Muslim issues within the hardline Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which helped create the BJP, said he thinks women voters will respond to Modi’s call for change.
“Our views are offending Muslim politicians and so-called secular political parties,” he said, “because they did not have the courage to bring about a reform and improve lives of millions of Muslim women.”
The high profile given to the subject has sparked accusations of hypocrisy, given what has happened in the Hindu-dominated country of 1.2 billion people since the BJP’s victory.
Hindu activists have in recent years held what they call large “ghar wapsi’s”, or homecomings, to convert people to Hinduism. Groups of Hindu vigilantes have grabbed headlines for assaulting Muslims accused of harming cows, an animal held sacred in Hinduism.
At the same time, there have not been similar grassroots uproars about many issues that plague the Hindu community.
For instance, there are reports of Hindu women committing suicide because of pressures on families to deliver large dowry payments, in a system that echoes feudal customs. And about a third of child brides in the world live in India.
In interviews this month in Uttar Pradesh, many Muslims, men and women, said they were opposed to triple talaq, but voiced conflicted emotions about the prospect of Modi’s involvement.
“If it’s repealed, women will get more freedom,” said Reshma Khatoon, a 27-year-old teacher at the Zainabya Girls Inter College in the city of Muzaffarnagar, scene of deadly communal riots in 2013 that left thousands of Muslims displaced.
“There’s been a lot of discussion, it comes up when women sit together.”
Wearing a black sweater and traditional Muslim hijab head covering, Khatoon glanced around a table where other teachers from the school were seated. She said: “I also believe in the Koran. Nobody should interfere with this.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White