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Social Science and Public Policy

Narratival Ambiguity and Its Consequences: The Case of Muslim Divorce in Indian Courts

April 16, 2024 at 3:30pm5:00pm

Eggers Hall, 341

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The South Asia Center at the Moynihan Institute presents a talk by Yüksel Sezgin, Syracuse University. 

Lower court judges in Common Law jurisdictions rely on legal precedent for everyday adjudication. They look to higher courts, particularly in religious cases, for authoritative, non-controversial precedents with clear narratives. Narratival clarity, however, should not be taken for granted amidst growing social divisions, ideological polarization, and politicization of judiciaries. 

How do lower court judges cope with the challenge of following precedents with obscure narratives? The paper will address this question by examining data collected from interviews with Indian judges and attorneys and over 2,000 court decisions dealing with Islamic divorces—especially triple talaq (TT). 

Focusing on post-Shayara Bano (2017) case law, the paper will demonstrate that narratival obscurity creates challenges for lower court judges to decipher the legal meaning of apex court judgments and follow them as precedents. Instead, many judges resort to an “open buffet” strategy by liberally reinterpreting higher court rulings and constructing their own “precedents” with narratives that closely reflect their political and communal preferences. This, in turn, undermines the rule of law by further politicizing the judiciary and eroding public trust in the courts. Moreover, narratival ambiguity often derails internal reform within religious communities by denying cultural dissenters valuable feedback while empowering conservative forces.

Yüksel Sezgin is an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. He is the author of “Human Rights under State-Enforced Religious Family Laws in Israel, Egypt and India” (Cambridge University Press, 2013). He is currently finishing a new book looking at how non-Muslim courts apply Muslim family laws, specifically focusing on the cases of Israel, India, Greece and Ghana. 

This event was published on April 3, 2024.

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