Assam wakes up to the scourge of child marriage amid criticism
By Nava Thakuria*
Dispur: Even as Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma swears to eliminate the menace of child marriage in the state by 2026 – the year Assam is scheduled to go for the next legislative assembly elections, his recent crackdown on the perpetrators has not gone down well with his opponents. The way he has proceeded on his mission to abolish this social evil has even invited the Gauhati High Court’s criticism.
The Chief Minister launched a major crackdown on child marriages on February 3, 2023, when Assam police forces picked up over 3000 individuals (including 93 females) following 4,235 registered first information reports across the State. Most of them are still in judicial custody (temporary jails), some got bail and a few remain in police custody.
The arrested individuals include mostly the accused and perpetrators but the drive against child marriages, though logically supported by every conscious citizen, invited massive public outrages from different corners and at least two victims of circumstance committed suicides fearing impending police actions. Hundreds of young women (some may have attained the minimum legal age of marriage ie 18 years) gathered in the police stations crying for their husbands’ release. Many lodged protest demonstrations against the administrative action towards their ‘innocent’ husbands and relatives.
The Gauhati high court criticized the government for detaining all these people with non-bailable charges under the POCSO act, rape, etc and creating havoc in their private lives. Granting the anticipatory bail to a group of individuals over the crime, the court observed that there was no need for custodial interrogation of the accused persons. It termed the mass arrest of individuals as a bad idea considering the children and elder members of their families. The court emphasized a society-driven change over the issue than adopting punitive actions.
The Opposition parties in Assam, including the Congress, Asom Jatiya Parishad, and All India United Democratic Front, among others too criticised the state government’s action terming it an abuse of the law for political gains.
Although the Chief Minister asserted that those arrested were not targeted because of their religious affiliations, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal and The All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi came down heavily against the BJP-led government for the mass arrests concerning unlawful marriages. They alleged that the drive was planned to harass Muslim families in the State. Owaisi also questioned CM Sarma about the fate of girls and women whose husbands were taken into custody.
The Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation also urged the government to immediately sanction at least Rs 2,000 per month (from the CM’s relief fund) as financial assistance to the affected teenagers/women whose husbands have been detained or arrested. The foundation, even though supports the government initiatives to eradicate the menace of child
marriage by penalizing the perpetrators, insisted on extending due financial and legal support to the victims. It also asked the concerned authorities not to ignore the children born out of child marriages.
The Chief Minister though claimed that the crackdown positively impacted society as several families lately cancelled pre-scheduled marriages of underage brides (also grooms). Unmoved by the criticism, he said that the stringent step, the first of its kind in India by any State government, received the necessary support from various sections of the society including the religious minority leaders.
Sarma had announced on January 26 – Republic Day – the government’s resolve to erase the social menace in the state with an aim to pursue zero tolerance against the practice of child marriage. Subsequently, the State Cabinet approved the proposal to take stern action against those men who married underage girls under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Recently, a Cabinet sub-committee for taking care of child marriage victims was also formed. Sarma stressed that the State government is committed to ensuring that the evil practice is stopped.
Recent data from National Family Health Survey reflects that Assam continues to record a higher number of child marriages as well as cases of teenage pregnancy than all India levels. It is established that child marriage in the State has directly influenced the mother and infant mortality rates. Assam loses around 195 mothers among 100,000 during childbirths (the national average is 97 deaths per 100,000 live births). Similarly, it records 36 infant deaths per 1,000 live births (where the national average is 28).
Needless to mention that Sarma is one of the longest serving State health ministers. He took the charge of Assam health ministry in 2006 and continued till 2015 (during the Congress rule). Later he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and again took responsibility in 2016 for a full five years. In May 2021, he took oath as the State CM and started many missions that remained unaccomplished in previous years. Sarma’s latest priority emerges to bring down mother and infant mortality rates in Assam.
Child marriage is a social scourge. It is banned in India for nearly a century as it always threatens the lives, well-being and futures of girls. The BJP-led government in Dispur now says it is committed to fighting against the social evil in the State with full political will. Sarma emphasized a robust ecosystem in Assam against the illegal practice of child marriage. He further opined that the government and law enforcement agencies along with the village heads, self-help groups, etc must be made the stakeholders in the ecosystem.