Assam has been witnessing protests by Muslims and human rights organisations since the last couple of days over the intensive crackdown on child marriages launched by the state government on Friday (3 February).
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma ordered the state administration to launch the crackdown against violations of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 that prohibits marriage of girls below 18 years of age.
Till Monday (6 February) noon, 2,441 men had been arrested (see this tweet by Chief Minister Sarma) and more than 4,100 FIRs had been registered against violators of the 2006 law. Most of the arrested are Bangladesh-origin Muslims living in west and central districts as well as the Barak Valley region of Assam.
The crackdown has triggered protests by members and bodies representing the Bengali-speaking (Bangladesh-origin) Muslim community and their apologists.
Muslim women whose husbands have been arrested have staged protests, and Muslim organisations have alleged that the crackdown targets the Muslim community. Wokes, human rights bodies and leftists have also started protesting.
But the move has evoked widespread appreciation in Assam and many individuals as well as citizens’ bodies have come out in open support of this action against child marriages.
Chief minister Sarma told Swarajya that more than one lakh underage girls, some even below 10 years of age, have been married off in the state in recent years.
“Action is being taken against men who have married underage girls, qazis and priests who solemnised these child marriages and also parents of the girls and their grooms for complicity in violating this important law,” he said.
The Assam cabinet, at its meeting on 23 January, decided to launch the crackdown against violators of the 2006 law.
Sarma said the drive will continue till the next assembly polls due in 2026. He said that men who have married girls below 14 years of age will face non bailable charges while those who have married girls in the 14 to 18 age bracket are being arrested under bailable sections. Parents of underage girls are being let off with stern warnings.
Such marriages will also be declared illegal, said Sarma. Those who have married girls below 14 years of age will be charged under the stringent Protection Of Children From Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (widely known as the POCSO Act). And grooms under 14 years of age will be sent to ‘reform homes’.
Contrary to uninformed reports in the media, only marriages in violation of the 2006 act solemnised after January 2020 are being penalised. That’s because Section 468 of the CrPC does not allow cognisance of an offence (like the 2006 act) that is punishable by more than one year in jail three years after the violation has occurred.
This ‘period of limitation’, thus, bars arrest and prosecution of offenders who have married underage girls before January 2020.
Explaining the reasons behind the crackdown, Chief Minister Sama told Swarajya that National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data reveals that in 31 per cent of the marriages registered in Assam, the brides are below 18 years of age.
The 5th NFHS (conducted between 2019 and 2021) has revealed (see this) that Assam has a very high rate of infant and maternal mortality and the primary reason for that is child marriage, said Sarma.
“The drive against child marriage and violations of the law was necessary to bring Assam out of the shame of high infant and maternal mortality rates. We have also launched a simultaneous drive to spread awareness against child marriages. But any awareness drive will not be effective if law violators are not punished,” he said.
“When a man marries a girl child and consummates the marriage, it amounts to rape. Do people who are protesting the crackdown realise the pain that the girl child goes through? To save lakhs of girls from getting married off at a very young age, this drive is necessary. People who have married underage girls will have to suffer. There will be no sympathy for them. The crackdown will continue till the social evil of child marriage is completely erased from Assam,” Sarma asserted.
The drive is already yielding rich dividends. According to media reports, over a hundred weddings (almost all within the Bengali-speaking Muslim community) have been cancelled in the Barak Valley region of southern Assam over the past three days. Other Muslim-dominated districts have also reported cancellation of weddings.
Muslim organisations have alleged that two women have committed suicide. A 16-year-old Muslim girl from Barak Valley’s Cachar district hanged herself from a tree on being told by her parents she would have to wait for two more years to marry a boy she was in love with.
In South Salmara-Mankachar district, a 27-year-old mother of two children reportedly committed suicide Friday night fearing arrest of her parents who had married her off in 2012 when she was still underaged.
The Muslim-dominated Dhubri, Barpeta, Biswanath, Hojai and other districts have reported the highest number of FIRs being registered against child marriages. Police on Saturday (4 February) burst tear gas shells and wielded batons to disperse a large group of women who had laid siege to a police station in Dhubri demanding release of their husbands who had been arrested for violating the POCSO Act and the 2006 act.
The state government has rejected criticism that the drive is aimed against Muslims. State officials have pointed out that quite a number of Hindus, including indigenous tribals of the state, have also been arrested for marrying underage girls.
The drive has evoked widespread praise and support in Assam.
“This drive will automatically create very strong awareness among all sections against child marriages. Everyone will become aware of the law that prohibits marriage of girls under 18 years of age,” said Nabarun Borah, a former professor of sociology at Guwahati University.
Many say that this will also arrest the exponential increase in the population of Bengali-speaking Muslims that has already altered the demography of the state.
“The population of Bangladesh-origin Muslims is rising fast because of child marriages. Many Bengali-speaking Muslims, especially the illiterate and poor ones, marry young girls who then bear many children. This has to stop,” said Khitish Mahantam, a social worker.
Opposition to the crackdown by vested interests is slowly intensifying in Assam. Thankfully, however, Chief Minister Sarma has vowed to stay the course and root out this practice.
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