Minimum Child Marriages in Muslim-Majority J & K, Lakshadweep; the Highest in Bihar & WB : NFHS Study

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The National Family and Health Survey (NHFS) 2019-21 conducted by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shows that child marriage is not linked with religion as is being propagated by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma based on unauthentic information. The study shows that Muslim-dominated Jammu & Kashmir, and Lakshadweep have the lowest rate of child marriages in the country, strongly disproving Assam CM’s thesis. Here is a comprehensive analysis based on NHFS survey and child marriages in India.

Syed Khalique Ahmed

NEW DELHI—Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sharma created international headlines by ordering the arrest of men who married underage girls. The arrested men included even those whose wives had attained 18 years of age or above after marriage. The legal age of marriage for men in India is 21 years, and 18 for women and its violation is a punishable offence.

But child marriages have been a regular pattern all over India across religious communities, particularly among poor people in rural and urban areas.

According to government statistics, the number of such marriages is not very small. In some states, child marriages are more than 40 per cent of the annual marriages. 

Bihar and West Bengal, apart from Assam, are among the states with the highest rate of child marriages because of the sizeable population of the state engrossed in poverty.

However, Sarma, who turned a hardcore Hindutva leader after quitting Congress about a decade ago, tried to set a narrative that it was exclusively the Muslim men who married underage girls and violated the marriage laws. 

The Assam police, which conducted a drive to arrest the men having married underage girls, did not release the arrest figures based on religion to prove the chief minister’s narrative.

But most of the pictures published by the mainstream media – in their print and online editions – showed Muslim men being arrested by the police. What this conveys is that the Muslim community is guilty of child marriages.

However, independent sources say that about 45 per cent of those arrested for violating the age bar under the existing marriage laws are Hindus. But the way the BJP politicians, particularly Chief Minister Sarma, made the statement appeared to be an exercise intended to defame Muslims. 

But the claims of Sarma or any other politicians over the high incidence of child marriages among Muslims and linking them with the religion of Islam belies the fact. 

Their claims stand exposed from the data regarding the percentage of child marriages given by the National Health and Family Survey (NHFS ) between 2019-21 and uploaded on the Government of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare website. 

The NHFS survey has not provided figures based on religion. However, according to the study, brides were below 18 years in over 23 per cent of total marriages in the country. 

Moreover, the study shows child marriages are not exclusively among women. They are more or less prevalent among men, also. According to the survey, the percentage of child marriages nationally among men was above 17 per cent during the study period.

The Ministry of Health figures show a considerable percentage of women and men nationwide were married off when they had not attained the minimum age for marriage as per the existing law. 

While 27 per cent of such marriages were in rural areas, the urban areas accounted for 14.7 per cent of women’s child marriages where the awareness about the age of marriage is high. 

The national average for underage marriage in the case of men as per the NHFS 2019-20 survey was 17.7 per cent, 21 per cent of it in rural areas and over 11 per cent in urban centres. The Government of India’s figures shows that underage marriage in the case of men countrywide was also very high. 

While the survey has not given the reason for child marriages, activists involved with health awareness programmes say that the main factor behind the underage marriage of girls and boys in urban and rural areas was the poor socio-economic condition and lack of education on the part of brides, bridegrooms and their parents. In the case of men, activists say it is because of social and cultural reasons.

However, the figures about the states are very startling. For example, the Muslim-majority regions – Jammu and Kashmir, and Lakshadweep – have the lowest percentage of child marriages among women and men compared with other states in the country. 

Even Punjab, with a majority of the Sikh population, also has a very low incidence of underage marriages in the case of both – women and men. 

Similarly, Christian majority Nagaland and Mizoram in the Northeast are among the state with the minuscule percentage of child marriages among their men and women. 

What does this suggest? The study indicates that religion has no role to play in child marriages. Suppose Islam is the reason for child marriages, as Sarma would like his constituents to believe, apparently for political polarisation in North-eastern states to gain more seats for his party in the assembly and 2024 Lok Sabha elections. In that case, the figures for child marriages should have been very high in Kashmir and Lakshadweep, with Muslims accounting for more than 99 per cent of the population of the two centrally-administered union territories. 

The NFHS data disproves the Assam Chief Minister’s thesis that only Muslims are guilty of child marriages. Based on unauthentic information, he resorted to the arrest of the violators of the marriage laws and went on a spree to arrest them, irrespective of people’s faith. 

His weird action only caused harassment of both: Muslims and non-Muslims. His abnormal action stopped only after the Guwahati High Court rapped him, saying that the government had unnecessarily intruded into the people’s private affairs.

Against this, states and UTs like Andhra Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, National Capital Region of Delhi, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Dadra & Nagar Haveli have a very high incidence of child marriages. Even Gujarat considered the number two industrialised state after Maharashtra, has a high rate of child marriages. Maharashtra also has a high rate of underage marriage among women and men. 

Islam discourages child marriages

Sarma and his BJP colleagues don’t know that Islam discourages child marriages. On the contrary, by making it mandatory to seek the woman’s consent for her wedding or ‘nikah’, Islam imposes a total ban on childhood marriages. 

As per Islamic law, a nikah or marriage will not be valid if the woman’s consent is not taken. And this consent should not be under pressure from parents or guardians. 

This shows that the women’s decision about her marriage will prevail over the decisions of her parents or guardians about her marriage. However, a woman can decide about such an essential aspect of her life only if she is emotionally, physically and mentally mature. 

The same thing is about boys’ marriage also. Like girls, a Muslim boy can also not be married against his wishes. His consent is a must for a valid ‘nikah’.  

By making the consent of boys and girls mandatory for their marriage, Islam has strongly curbed child marriages and favoured unions when the boys and girls reach a stage where they can take their own decisions. This Islamic guidance about marriage is very much in accord with the existing national laws about marriage.

However, it cannot be denied that there is no child marriage among Muslims in India. But these are undoubtedly exceptions. And these exceptions are because of the influence of the ancient Indian culture and tradition in which child marriage was not only permitted but was a rule. This unscientific practice was discouraged among groups and individual families who embraced Islam. But the traces of the ancient culture and tradition still persist among some Muslims, particularly those who are educationally and socio-economically backwards. But that, too, needs to be removed through education and awareness programmes, not only among Muslims but the rest of the population as well, to improve the people’s collective life.

‘Raja’ Ram Mohan Roy campaigned against child marriages

One of the greatest Indian reformers of the 18th century, ‘Raja’ Ram Mohan Roy, who had studied the Quran in Arabic, had launched a campaign in Bengal and other provinces against child marriage. He also launched a strong movement for widow remarriage, particularly in Bengal, with a large population of young widows. Widows lived a very miserable life because widow remarriage was forbidden in Hindu society. It is, however, not known if Roy took his reformist campaign under the influence of Islam.

Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 & Sarda Act, 1949

Perhaps, influenced by ‘Raja’ Ram Mohan Roy’s movement, the  British government in India legislated the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929 that fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 and for boys at 18 years. This showed that the girls in India were married off even at a much tender age at that time.

However, the British government did not go about creating awareness about it, particularly in smaller towns and villages. They also did not implement it because the British felt that it would annoy the religious sections among Hindus and Muslims, particularly at a time when a strong movement for Independence of India was going on. Even Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in his Autobiography, has criticised the ‘dual policy’ of the Britishers on reform about the child marriage. Nehru wanted the British government to implement the law and create an awareness about it among the people.

After Independence, the Government of India passed the Sarda Act in 1949 which fixed the minimum marriage for girls at 15 years and for boys at 18 years. The Act was amended in 1978 which raised the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 years and for boys at 21. It was again amended in 2006 as the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.

The Government of India introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage(Amendment) Bill in 2021which has been passed by Lok Sabha. However, it is yet to become a law because it is pending in Rajya Sabha. The Bill has raised the minimum age of marriage for women at 21 years.

Table shows the percentage of child marriage in different states and union territories.

S.NoStatesWomen(%)Men(%)
1Lakshadweep1.30
2Ladakh2.520.2
3Jammu & Kashmir4.58.5
4Himachal Pradesh5.44.6
5Kerala6.31.4
6Nagaland5.65
7Mizoram811
8Uttarakhand9.816.7
9Delhi (National Capital Region)9.912
10Haryana12.516
11Sikkim10.85.1
12West Bengal41.620
13Tripura4020.4
14Telangana23.516.3
15Tamil Nadu12.84.5
16Uttar Pradesh15.823
17Madhya Pradesh23.130
18Odisha20.513.3
19Rajasthan25.428.2
20Punjab8.711.4
21Arunachal Pradesh18.920.8
22Jharkhand32.222.7
23Karnataka21.36.1
24Gujarat21.827.7
25Goa5.88.9
26Dadra & Nagar Haveli26.412.6
27Bihar40.830.5
28Assam31.821.8
29Maharashtra2210.5
30Meghalaya16.917.9
31Manipur16.315.3
32Andhra Pradesh29.314.5
33Andaman & Nicobar16.27.1
34Chandigarh9.70
35Chhattisgarh12.116.2
  

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