GUWAHATI—Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is reportedly using the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act to target the state’s Muslim community.
As many as 2528 persons had been arrested till Tuesday for marrying underage girls since the crackdown against child marriage began in the state on February 3. This information has been shared by Sarma on his personal Twitter handle.
However, there is no exact figure of people marrying underage girls in the state. But a Tweet by the chief minister says that the number of teenage pregnant women registered with government hospitals in the state was 1.04 lakh between January and December 2022, indicating the huge number of child marriages taking place in the state annually. The chief minister has quoted RCH as his source of information. Teenage pregnancy is, according to RCH (Reproductive and Child Health) data, 16.8 percent of the total pregnancy of 6.20 lakh in the state.
There is also no figure available about the number of Hindus and Muslims arrested under the ongoing crackdown against child marriage. The only figure that the state police have given is about the arrest of 50 Hindu priests and Muslim Qazis who solemnized the marriage of underage girls.
However, it is generally believed that the crackdown is mainly against Muslims. But CM Sarma says that the drive is intended to prevent child marriages, and anyone, irrespective of his religion, would be arrested if he is found violating the minimum age of marriage.
The minimum age of marriage in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 is 18 years and 21 for men. Any violation of it attracts penal action.
But the state government has created little awareness about the legal age of marriage and its consequences among the people, a large section of whom need to be made aware of the law. Then, however, it suddenly began a crackdown following a statement by the chief minister.
In an official tweet, Chief Minister said that he had asked Assam police “to act with a spirit of zero tolerance against the unpardonable and heinous crime against women.”
“Our drive against child marriage is for public health & public welfare,” Sarma said in his tweet.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS-5), 23 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before 18. But this figure for Assam is 31 per cent. Activists say that cracking down on such a vast population of people involved in underage marriages is not justified. Instead, they argue that the Assam government should have launched an awareness campaign and then started acting in case of violations.
But Assam CM’s action is interpreted by Opposition parties and social activists as another act to harass the Muslim minorities who are already at the receiving end in the state under the BJP government. The BJP government has bulldozed several Muslim madrasas, mosques and houses on the pretext that they were built illegally. But Muslims and social activists contest the government’s claim, saying it was nothing but an action to target the Muslim community who generally do not vote for the BJP, known for its anti-Muslim political agenda. Muslims account for about 34 per cent of the state’s population.
The political activists say that when the husband of a woman, the sole bread-earner of the family, is arrested and put in jail, how can this be a work of ‘public welfare and in favour of women? The crackdown has put women in more misery as videos of crying women for their jailed husbands are viral now.
But why is this sudden ‘crackdown’ on child marriage offences and why is Mr. Himanta so excited about it?
All Assam Minorities Students Union(AAMSU) Hasina Ahmed told India Tomorrow that Himanta is known for his tactics to divert attention from the real issue and create an anti-Muslim frenzy, and this so-called crackdown is yet another example of that. Muslims constitute around 34% of Assam’s 3.3 crore population.
She explained, “Nobody denies that the issue is real, but this solution of arresting men is worse than the problem.”
Subrata Talukdar told Indiatomorrow.net that Himanta is not interested in going to the root of the problem and finding its solution. He accused Himanta of creating media hype and trying to become a ‘hero’ overnight. He asked, “Who will look after the wife and children of such men who are arrested?”
Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi has also objected to Assam government’s action about crackdown. “BJP’s Assam government in Assam is biased against Muslims,”he claimed in a tweet.
National Federation of Girls Islamic Organisation (GIO) has strongly opposed the crackdown, arguing that this has put a question mark on the future of the families who have been arrested. According to the Federation, most of those arrested happen to be Muslims.
In a statement, the Federation said that “child marriage is indeed abhorrent and must be addressed urgently”. However, this issue was never discussed in the past 20 years. “Students bodies that intended to initiate awareness campaigns received limited or no support. By the time, the survey was conducted, most of the couples were already parents or expecting,” the federation pointed out.
“What the government fails to realize is that child marriage and underage pregnancies are more of a social issue than a legal one. The communities which have been historically deprived of standard living conditions were forced to choose parallel methods to protect and safeguard their children. They have little to no knowledge about legislation such as POCSO or the Prevention of Child Marriage Act. The women here are dependent in every aspect on the men in their family, incarcerated by the state. The current move of the state will further exacerbate or create numerous new social, economic, and humanitarian issues at large,” the Federation said in its statement.
The Federation urged the state government to hear the pleas of the protesting women. “ “Well-settled families shouldn’t be uprooted. Leaving women and children with no support is by no means a fair move. The Govt. must join hands with NGOs and student bodies and come up with a comprehensive, holistic, and poor-friendly approach to this menace. It must see to it that the focus of this move is on soothing the scars, not on throttling lives. Long-term development and education-oriented moves are urgent and much appreciated. Impartial steps in the field of education and reform must be taken,” the Federation suggested.
How many cases?
According to Assam DGP GP Singh, the police have registered 4,076 cases based on prima facie evidence against those involved in child marriages. The 4,076 registered cases involve around 8,000 people, directly or indirectly.
The chief minister of Assam said in a TV interview that the number of cases identified for violation of the child marriage act was more than one lakh, and for demonstrative actions, around four thousand cases were registered. He also informed that Child Marriage Prohibition Officers are assigned to deal with such cases.
How were the ‘culprits’ identified?
Assam DGP says that after the chief minister issued a directive two months back to act against child marriages, we interacted with “gaon burhas”, village defence parties, and other stakeholders and collected data on child marriages. “We registered the cases based on the data of the past three years. As a result, we have prima facie evidence of girls in their early teens — 11, 12, or 13 years — getting married. Many of them have even conceived.
While the DGP said that the data of the past three years were collected, chief minister Himanta is reported to have said that the government would bring all involved in child marriages from the past seven years to book.
But Hasina Ahmed argues that the data were collected from the hospitals, which is an ‘infringement of privacy by the state as the Aadhar card information was not meant to be used for purposes other than the medical facilities.”
Abandoned families’ fate
Congress MLA Kamalakha Dey Purkayastha says his party is also against child marriage, but this ‘insensitive and inhuman’ crackdown is questionable. “What will be the status of the children of those arrested?”
He suggested that the government should take responsibility for the families of the arrested persons. Otherwise, the wives and the children would be left with no means to survive.
Purkayastha termed it a ‘social evil’ and asked to deal with it with social mechanisms. However, he cautioned that police action against poor and uneducated families would further aggravate their miseries.
Assam DGP had said that the responsibility for the well-being of the child brides rested with the district magistrates and the social welfare department.
Chief minister Himanta, too, had said the government planned to rehabilitate the child brides if the child bride has no one to take care of them. However, that makes the promise shaky though he announced setting up a long-term rehabilitation arrangement.
Hasina Ahmed, who also works to prevent child marriages, says that it was beyond comprehension against the married persons and that too, after so much time when they have settled into family life.
Age of Muslim men and the problem of POCSO
Though there is no concrete data to prove that this crackdown was against the Muslim community, there are indicators that this is indeed meant to harass Muslim men. Hasina says that the victims are not only Muslims, but the “target is certainly Muslims.”
Framing the Muslim men under POCSO is also being seen in the same way.
Subrata Talukdar questions, “How the government thinks that arresting under POCSO and putting the men in jail would help the women?”
Senior advocate of Gauhati High Court and committee member of All India Muslim Personal Board Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury says, “According to Muslim personal law, a girl belonging to the Muslim community can get married after she attains the age of 15 years. In a verdict, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana said that a Muslim girl could marry a man of her choice once she is 15. These types of marriages are not illegal even as per the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.”
Attack on the Qazi System of Marriage Registration
Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairperson Sunita Changkakati says that the Commission has directed all Deputy Commissioners (DCs) to ensure that priests and Qazis who solemnize marriages should check the Aadhaar card or PAN card of the bride and groom to verify their age. But the In a TV interview, the chief minister actually attacked the Qazi marriage registration system.
He suggested that the government would work to end this system virtually intruding into this century-long system. Though he also mentioned priests for once, he was very specific about Qazis.
More than 50 Qazis and priests were also arrested though the bifurcated number was unavailable. This is another indicator to suggest that Himanta’s crackdown is actually targeted against Muslims.
The problem of early pregnancy
According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) child marriage rate in Assam is 31%. Chief minister Himanta says on his Twitter handle that the teenage pregnancy ratio in Assam is quite alarming – 16.8%.
He said that around 30,000-40,000 child marriages occurred in Assam annually. But, he alleged, “In the last 20 years, government and non-government agencies responsible for preventing child marriages did not do the job sincerely.”
Reason for child marriage: “Lack of coordination”
Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairperson Sunita Changkakati says that lack of coordination among the stakeholders is one of the main reasons why child marriage is still prevalent in society.
She told an English daily published in Gauhati that while visiting various districts, they observed no coordination between stakeholders like the Health and Family Welfare department, the Social Welfare department, Anganwadi workers, Asha karmis, etc. due to which child marriage continues to be practiced in society.
She also suggested that if the priests and Qazis had any doubts, then they should inform the police immediately.
She lauded the Assam Government’s massive crackdown but added that child marriages are likely to continue unless there is proper coordination between all the stakeholders. On the other hand, chief minister Himanta intends to involve school girls to share information from their friends who are getting married.
Advocate Rashid says, “Child marriage must be stopped, but before taking any such action, the government should first spread awareness against it.”