This article is written by Rachel Sethia. It offers a detailed analysis of the landmark judgement delivered by a Supreme Court Bench composed of Justice M.M Punchhi and Justice Sujata vs. Manohar in the case of The Secretary, Tamil Nadu Wakf Board vs. Syed Fatima Nachi (1996). This case deals with the interpretation of Section 4 of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. This article provides critical analysis, facts, issues, legal aspects involved and the final judgement, along with landmark precedents referred to by the Apex Court to decide the matter.

Often, Muslim women face challenges due to gender inequality, restrictive legal systems and cultural and religious practices. One major struggle faced by a Muslim woman is with respect to receiving a fair divorce settlement and maintenance. The concept of maintenance was introduced in Muslim law for the people who cannot maintain themselves. This principle ensures the fulfilment of the basic requirements of a human being, such as food, shelter, clothing and education. 

Maintenance for women under Muslim Law 

Under Muslim law, the right to receive maintenance is absolute while the husband and wife are married, but the concern is regarding what happens if the marriage is dissolved. In such a situation, the rights of a divorced Muslim woman to receive maintenance are very limited. As per Muslim law, all women (either dependent or not) are entitled to maintenance. It is different from most other religious laws, wherein only dependent women qualify for maintenance. Muslim women are entitled to maintenance after divorce, only till the iddat period. This creates hardship for the divorced woman in leading her life. It is advantageous and easy for a Muslim man to divorce his wife, as he has to pay her maintenance only for a certain period. To overcome this plight of Muslim women, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 (hereinafter referred to as the Act) was incorporated. Incorporation of the said Act led to the disposal of all the pending cases of maintenance under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (hereinafter referred to as the CrPC). 

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The judgement given under the case of The Secretary, Tamil Nadu Wakf Board vs. Syed Fatima Nachi (1996) dealt with the interpretation of Section 4 of the Act, which states how a Muslim woman, after divorce, can obtain maintenance for herself. 

Origin of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986

The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, was enacted to undo the effect of a Constitution Bench decision of the Court in the case of Mohd. Ahmad Khan vs. Shah Bano Begum (1985). This case dealt with the right to maintenance after divorce.

The respondent, in this case, was married to the appellant. One day, the appellant ended the wedlock with an irrevocable talaq. The respondent and her children were outcasts. It made her file for maintenance under Section 125 of the CrPC. The respondent was awarded a maintenance of Rs. 25 from the court, which further made her file a review petition for an increased amount of maintenance. Aggrieved by the review petition, the appellant filed this case in the Supreme Court, seeking dismissal of the review petition. While deciding the case in favour of the respondent, the Apex Court held that Section 125 of the CrPC is applicable to all women regardless of the religion they practise, and every spouse, irrespective of their religion, is liable to pay maintenance to his wife until she remarries. 

This judgement faced a lot of criticism from the Muslim community and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board on the ground that the courts cannot interfere with their personal law and that this step by the court violates the Sharia Law. The protest and criticism against this judgement further prompted the enactment of the Act, which is central to the present case. It includes a clarification on the maintenance of Muslim women after divorce.

What is the State Wakf Board?

The State Wakf Board is a statutory body established by the Government under Section 9 of the Wakf Act, 1995. The primary duty of this Board is to oversee and maintain the properties donated by Muslims for the betterment of their community. These properties are meant to support necessities like education, healthcare and other community-related services for the people of the community. It is the duty of the Board to make sure that these properties are used correctly, resolve any disputes relating to the property and ensure that the Islamic rules are being followed. The income generated by the Board is used for the benefit of the Muslim community.

Case Name: The Secretary, Tamil Nadu Wakf Board vs. Syed Fatima Nachi

Appellant: Tamil Nadu Wakf Board through its Secretary

Respondent: Syed Fatima Nachi 

Court: Supreme Court

Bench of Judges: Justice M.M Punchhi and Justice S.V. Manohar 

Type of Case: Criminal Appeal 

Statute involved: The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986

Date of Judgment: 9th July, 1996

Citation: AIR 1996 SC 2423

The facts of this case pertain to an order given by the High Court of Madras dated 16th March 1994, which was challenged by the Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board and the Superintendent of Wakfs in Tirunelveli. The order rejected the appellant’s request to quash legal proceedings initiated by Syed Fatima Nachi, who was seeking maintenance from the Board. 

Syed Fatima Nachi, a Muslim divorced woman, had filed a petition under Section 4(2) of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. She sought a monthly maintenance of Rs. 750, asserting that she had no means to support herself and her minor children after her divorce. Fatima married Syed Ahmed Moulana on 10th June 1980 and gave birth to twin daughters on 6th April 1981. Her husband divorced her on 12th June 1986, and since then, she has remained unmarried. 

Fatima claimed that without any income or property, she was unable to maintain herself and her children, necessitating the court’s intervention for financial support. She argued in front of the High Court that under Muslim law, her prospective heirs were responsible for her maintenance. However, she contended that neither her heirs nor her parents could provide her support, and according to Muslim law, the Wakf Board was obliged to provide maintenance to divorced women.

The appellant, in the present case, did not challenge the petition before the Madras High Court on the basis of its merits but sought the proceedings to be quashed through the Madras High Court utilising its power under the Crpc. The High Court declined this request, which prompted the present appeal before the Supreme Court. 

Whether the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board was responsible for paying maintenance to Syed Fatima as per the provisions of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986?

Section 4 of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights and Divorce) Act, 1986: order for payment of maintenance

While addressing the issue at hand, the Apex Court felt the need to give a detailed interpretation of Section 4 of the Act. 

Section 4(1) states that if a Magistrate determines that a divorced woman who has not remarried cannot support herself after the iddat period, the Magistrate can order the relatives of the divorced woman who will inherit her properties according to the Muslim law finally to maintain and support her. While deciding the amount of maintenance, the court shall take into consideration factors such as the needs of the woman, the standard of living she had while she was married, and the financial condition of the relative who is going to maintain her. The maintenance will be paid by the relative in proportion to their inheritance shares and at such intervals as specified by the court. Further, this sub-section states the hierarchy that is required to be followed by the Magistrate in passing orders for maintaining the lifestyle of a divorced woman. The Magistrate shall first pass orders for her children to maintain her. If they are not able to maintain her, the Magistrate shall pass orders for her parents to do so. If both or any of the parents cannot pay their share either due to lack of means or any other reason, the Magistrate, on receiving the proof for the same, shall pass appropriate orders for her relatives who have the means to pay the maintenance in proportion as deemed fit. 

Additionally, sub-section (2) states that if a divorced Muslim woman has no means and cannot support herself and has no relatives, parents or children to do so, as mentioned in sub-section (1), the Magistrate can direct the State Wakf Board to pay the maintenance. The State Wakf Board was established under Section 9 of the Wakf Act and in consonance with the other relevant laws functioning in the concerned area in which the women reside. The Board must provide the maintenance that is determined by the Magistrate, or it may be directed to cover the shares of the relatives who are unable to pay as specified in the order. 

Court’s observation on the appellant’s contention

The appellant contended that sub-section (2) of Section 4, which incurs the liability on the State Wakf Board, cannot be invoked unless sub-section (1) of Section 4 is not completely addressed through proper orders. They contended that they cannot be made a party to the present case as sub-section (1) is not resolved by the Magistrate. These arguments of the appellant were rejected by the Apex Court. 

The Court, while answering these contentions, observed that the appellants implied that the provision of Section 4 concedes multiplicity of proceedings, which is to say the following:

At the first instance, the proceedings shall be initiated against the children of the divorced woman. If the children are unable to maintain/support their mother, the proceedings shall be initiated against the parents of the divorced woman. If both or either of the parents does not have the means to maintain their daughter, upon receiving proof of the same, the Magistrate shall initiate proceedings against the relatives of the woman. Lastly, if the relatives are not able to maintain her, then the proceedings shall be initiated against the State Wakf Board, as per the orders of the Magistrate. Hence, in the present case, according to the provision of law, the State Wakf Board is the last in the line. This is the hierarchy which needs to be followed. Its involvement has not yet come into play because no proceedings have been initiated against the relatives. 

The Court, after interpreting the arguments and reasoning of the appellant, was of the opinion that the approach adopted by the appellant undermined the essence and purpose of the provision in question. It was not the intention of the drafters while dividing Section 4 into sub-sections (1) and (2), to create a split between the two, but rather to form an integrated whole, with each step depending on the other. The Court further stated that it is impractical for a divorced woman who is already facing difficulties to initiate individual proceedings against all the parties mentioned under the concerned provision just to get a negative order from the Magistrate before finally being able to get help from the State Wakf Board. Divorced women should be allowed to present all the relevant facts in a single proceeding, showing that her children, parents and relatives cannot maintain her, and directly move against the State Wakf Board in the same proceeding. The Board can challenge the proceedings and prove that some of her relatives do possess the means to support her. In such a scenario, the Magistrate can make those relatives parties to the proceeding and determine who should pay the maintenance. By following this, multiple orders can be passed by the Magistrate in a single proceeding, and a multiplicity of proceedings can be avoided when supporting the divorced woman as long as she remains unmarried and unable to support herself and her children.

Final verdict

The Apex Court upheld the decision of the High Court to not intervene early on in the case upon the appellant’s request. The appellant can present their case before the Magistrate, based on its merits, in accordance with Section 4 of the Act, rather than seeking early court intervention. 

The Court also observed that the respondent received a notice after the appellant agreed to deposit Rs. 10,000 to cover the respondent’s legal expenses, regardless of the outcome of the case. Out of this amount, Rs. 3000 was paid to the amicus curiae, who was appointed since the respondent could not afford counsel to represent her in the case. The remaining Rs. 7000 was given to the respondent. The Court stated that this amount should not be taken into consideration if the respondent makes any future claims for maintenance. 

The judgement sheds light on the critical role of the Wakf Board in ensuring financial support to Muslim divorced women who lack the means to support themselves and their children. This highlights a broader social responsibility with which the Board has been entrusted. Section 4(2) of the Act highlights that the Wakf Board is liable to pay the maintenance, in case the children, parents and relatives of the divorced women are not able to maintain her. The Court, through its judgement, has set an observation that the duty of the Board is not secondary but a crucial one in a divorced woman’s life. The case of Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs. Shah Bano Begum(1985) was not welcomed by the Muslim Community, and the Government was made to make a statute for Muslim divorced women’s protection according to Islamic beliefs, which led to the formation of the Wakf Board. However, it turned out that the Board itself was running away from the duties vested in them by the said Act. The Apex Court, through its judgement in the present case, has upheld the objective behind the introduction of the said Act. 

The constitutional validity of the Act was upheld in the case of Danial Latifi and Anr. vs. Union of India (2002) decided by the Apex Court. The Apex Court held that according to Section 3(1)(a) of the Act, a Muslim husband has the responsibility of making provisions for the future of his divorced wife even beyond the iddat period. A Muslim woman who does not remarry and cannot maintain herself can seek maintenance from her children, parents and relatives and in case these entities are not able to provide for her, she can seek maintenance under Section 4 of the said Act from the Wakf Board of the State she is residing in. The Court further held that this Act does not infringe the fundamental rights laid down in the Indian Constitution. 

Impact of the case

While referring to the present case, the Calcutta High Court, in the matter of Manchura Bibi vs. Abdul Mojib Mondal and Ors. (2007) and the High Court of Bombay, in the matter of Babbu vs. Sayeda Masarat Begum and Ors. (2000) observed that the Act was enacted to undo the effect of the decision made in the Shah Bano case because the said decision was highly criticised by the Muslim community. The Act, as the preamble suggests, came into force to protect the interests and rights of Muslim women who have been divorced. 

In another case of Tripura Board of Wakf and Ors. vs. Tahera Khaton (2001), the High Court of Gauhati referred to the present case and held that it has already been held in the case of Syed Fatima that the proceedings under sub-section (1) and (2) of Section 4 of the Act, are not mutually exclusive, but are to be taken up simultaneously by the Magistrate. 

Further, in the case of Abdul Latif Mondal vs. Anuwara Khatun and Ors. (2001), the High Court of Calcutta referred to the present case and held that a divorced Muslim woman seeking maintenance shall refer to the said Act. Provisions like Section 3, Section 4 and Section 5 of the Act provide provisions for divorced Muslim women, and their claims shall be governed by this and not by Section 125 of the CrPC. 

Comparison between maintenance under Hindu and Muslim Laws

A Hindu wife is entitled to receive maintenance from her husband until she dies, as per Section 18(1) of the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956. Another provision present for maintenance, as mentioned above, is Section 125 of the CrPC, which states that if a person with enough money refuses to support his wife, minor child, disabled adult child or parents, a Magistrate can order him to pay monthly maintenance. In addition to this, if a Hindu woman refuses to live with her husband due to cruelty, leprosy or conversion to another religion without consent, she can seek special allowance under the law. 

On the other hand, under Muslim laws, women are entitled to receive maintenance until the iddat period only, and with the enactment of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 a Muslim woman cannot claim maintenance under Section 125 of the CrPC until she chooses to opt for it.

Courts have consistently interpreted the law to protect and safeguard women’s rights while respecting personal laws. They have maintained a careful approach to avoid overstepping the authority of the legislature. The courts are influenced by the demands of time, as well as political and social pressure. This inconsistent approach has sometimes led to confusion regarding women’s rights, but the present case has served as a major precedent for the interpretation of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.

This decision of the Apex Court clarifies that no Muslim woman shall be burdened with initiating multiple legal proceedings against her family while seeking maintenance after divorce from her husband. Instead, a divorced Muslim woman can initiate proceedings against the State Wakf Board, wherein she can show that her immediate relatives are not able to maintain her. All of this can be done in a single proceeding. For a woman who is not able to maintain herself, it is unfair for her to fight so many legal battles and will also not possess the finances to do so. A single proceeding is more effective, speedy and cost-effective, and will enable a compassionate resolution of the issue and will definitely serve the main object/purpose behind the said Act. 

Maintenance to be provided by the husband after divorce is a set principle in the CrPC, but the Act in question has provisions for the maintenance of Muslim women. Under the said Act, it is the duty of the State Wakf Board to support and maintain divorced Muslim women who have no other means to do so for themselves.  

This case not only highlights the importance and responsibilities of the State Wakf Board but also sheds light on the issue of fairness and social support for women within Muslim laws. It is a landmark precedent regarding the financial support rights of Muslim divorced women. 

However, as we compare this present Act with the other provisions present for women, the Muslim laws still lack gender equality. Muslim women are still at a disadvantage because they are subject to this specific Act rather than stronger secular laws that provide better protection and support. As the provisions of the present Act suggest, Muslim women are still made to fight long legal battles for their right to maintenance when they do not even possess the financial means to support themselves and their children. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the iddat period?

The iddat period is the time after the divorce of a Muslim woman from her husband or the death of her husband, after which she can remarry. One iddat period includes three menstrual cycles in case of divorce, and four lunar months and ten days in case her husband dies. If the woman is pregnant, the iddat period comes to an end once she gives birth to the child. It is derived from the Islamic laws. 

What is Sharia Law?

It is a law based on the Quran in the Islamic legal system. It includes the aspects of a Muslim person’s life, such as family matters, religious practices and ethical behaviour. In other words, it governs the day-to-day life of a person who practises Islam. 

Why did the Wakf Board challenge the High Court’s order?

It was submitted on behalf of the Wakf Board that the Board could not be made a party in this case since Syed Fatima had not complied with all the conditions laid down in Section 4 of the said Act. This was the ground on which the order of the High Court was challenged by the Wakf Board, but later on, this contention was rejected by the Apex Court.

What was sought by the respondent in the present case?

The respondent asked for Rs. 750 as maintenance from the Wakf Board, as she had no means to maintain herself and her minor children. 

Who was appointed as amicus curiae to the court in the present case?

As the respondent in this case did not have the means to engage a counsel to represent her, she requested the Court to engage a counsel that could represent her. Therefore, Mr Uday Umesh Lalit was engaged as amicus curiae in this case to assist the Court in this matter. 

What was the condition behind issuing notice to the respondent in the present case?

The appellant was made to deposit Rs. 10,000 to the Court. The reason behind this was that the money would be used to benefit the respondent and cover her litigation expenses.

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