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New Delhi (AFP) - The Indian government Wednesday issued an executive order making the Islamic practice of "instant divorce" a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison.
The controversial move brings an outright ban on "triple talaq" -- when a Muslim man ends his marriage by saying "talaq" ("you are divorced" in Arabic) three times in succession -- a step closer.
Muslim women say they have been divorced over messaging apps like WhatsApp or in letters, leaving them without any legal remedy.
India's lower house, controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), passed legislation outlawing the practice in December.
But it got stuck in the upper house, prompting the government to issue Wednesday's executive order. It now needs only approval from the president to become law.
"There was a constitutional urgency to bring this law. The curse of triple talaq has continued unabated," Ravi Shankar Prasad, law and justice minister, told reporters.
In August 2017, India's Supreme Court declared "triple talaq" unconstitutional and ordered the government to legislate against it.
Prasad said that 201 cases have been reported across the country even after the top court's order.
The BJP has long pushed for a uniform civil code for marriage, divorce and property. India's constitution allows followers of each faith to use their religious laws to govern such matters.
But India's 180-million-strong Muslim community has historically opposed such a move, saying it will erode their religious identity and violate the constitution.
Critics have long accused Modi, who is supported by hardline Hindu nationalists and who is running for re-election in 2019, of demonising Muslims for political ends.
"The BJP's stand on the Muslim plight is well known and they have little sympathy for the community," said Yogendra Yadav, an academic and politician who heads the socio-political organisation Swaraj India.
"This issue gives them a nice pretext to present the Muslim community in a poor light and themselves as defender of a retrograde practice," he said.
R S Surjewala, a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, said that the next step would be to ensure Muslim women get alimony.
"But the Modi government would not want that, they don't want upliftment of Muslim women," he told news channels.