NEW DELHI — India has criminalized a centuries-old practice in which Muslim men could instantly divorce their wives, a step that has polarized political parties over how deeply the government should become involved in marital and religious issues.
The practice, called triple talaq, allows Muslim men to divorce their wives by using the word “talaq,” meaning divorce in Arabic, three times in person, over the phone or even in writing or text message. The option is not available to Muslim women, who can seek a divorce only after getting permission from their husbands, a cleric or other religious authorities.
The Supreme Court last year struck down a legal provision that had permitted the practice. A new ordinance approved on Wednesday by an executive body led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes a step further, making it a criminal offense and setting a fine and a jail sentence of up to three years for men convicted of using the practice.
But the ordinance is law for only up to six months. During that period, India’s Parliament must pass the ordinance or it will become void.
The measure applies to all of India except the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has a largely Muslim population. Many predominantly Muslim countries have already banned triple talaq, which is widely frowned upon around the world.
Reaction to the ordinance was split along political lines. India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, which is rooted in Hindu nationalism and has been accused of anti-Muslim attitudes, welcomed the ordinance.
Earlier this year, the upper house of India’s Parliament failed to pass a bill that would have enacted many of the same provisions in the ordinance approved on Wednesday. That bill, called the Muslim Women Protection of Rights on Marriage Bill, passed the lower house of Parliament in December.
In India, the government can pass temporary ordinances with the full force of laws through the Union Council of Ministers and India’s president, if Parliament is sitting on a bill.
While India’s Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens regardless of religion, issues involving marriage, divorce, alimony and inheritance are handled differently among religious populations. India — which is overwhelmingly Hindu but has sizable numbers of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — does not have a uniform set of laws that applies to all citizens on matters of marriage and divorce.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, the law minister and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has heavily criticized the leading opposition party, Indian National Congress, for stalling the marriage bill. On Wednesday, he described passing of the executive ordinance to criminalize talaq as a matter of “overwhelming urgency.”
“I have said this before: The issue of triple talaq has nothing to do with faith, mode of worship or religion,” he said. “It is a pure issue of gender justice, gender dignity and gender equality.”
Randeep Surjewala, a prominent member of the Congress party, said it opposed the bill because the Bharatiya Janata Party had not included a provision guaranteeing financial support for women whose husbands are jailed for triple talaq.
“The Modi government is treating the issue more as a political football than a matter of justice to Muslim women,” Mr. Surjewala was quoted as saying by Indian media.
For years, Muslim women’s groups have been central to the effort to end the practice, supporting previous efforts with the Supreme Court and in Parliament.
The new ordinance states that only the wife or one of her blood relatives can file a criminal complaint against the husband, and that custody of a couple’s children will be given to the wife.
Rana Safvi, an author and activist who was involved in campaigning against triple talaq, said she welcomed certain provisions of the ordinance, including the closing of a loophole that would have allowed anybody to file a police complaint accusing a man of triple talaq. But Ms. Safvi said she worried that criminalizing the practice, which is a “civil matter” because it involves marriage, was “a bit of an overkill” and could pave the way for misuse.