Assam child marriages: Social reform, not police action, is the way out

Assam child marriages: Social reform, not police action, is the way out

Women’s welfare activists, lawyers view the Himanta government’s action as knee-jerk at best and a PR exercise at worst; better awareness and education alone can eradicate the evil, they say

“Just because there was a mistake in the Aadhaar card, they picked up my husband from our house at 2 am. They did not allow me to show them other documents, including my school certificate, to prove that we are not minors,” said Nimee Biswas, wife of Gopal Biswas.

The Biswases are residents of Sunduba village under the Bhuragaon police station in central Assam’s Morigaon district. Their date of birth was wrongly entered while enrolling for Aadhaar cards, according to Nimee. Gopal was one of the over 2,000 persons arrested by Assam police in a massive crackdown against child marriages across the state last Friday. 

More than a year ago, Nimee had eloped and married Gopal, who sells pakoras and other savouries at the village square. The couple has a one-and-half-month-old son.  “Now where will I get money to fight in court? My husband is the sole breadwinner of the family,” said Nimee. 

Also read | Assam: Families blame erroneous data for child marriage arrests

In the drive against child marriage, the state police arrested 2,278 persons, including 51 priests and qazis, last week. Per figures available on Monday, 4,036 cases have been registered, and 2,442 arrested. There is no religion- or community-wise break-up of the numbers.

A man arrested by Assam police in Dispur as part of a crackdown on child marriages.
A man arrested by Assam police in Dispur as part of a crackdown on child marriages.

“These cases have been lodged based on the child marriage records in the last three years —  2020, 2021 and 2022,” Assam Director General of Police GP Singh told reporters.

Raging protests, tragic deaths

There were protests in many parts of the state, with women gheraoing police stations in Laharighat, Mayong in Morigaon district, and Majuli, demanding the release of their husbands.

Amid the massive crackdown, a 27-year-old mother of two died by suicide in the South Salmara-Mankachar district, fearing the arrest of her parents for marrying her off before she turned 18. She hanged herself at home on Friday night, police said, adding they recovered her body and sent it for postmortem. As per the records, she was married off in 2012. Police said her husband died in 2020 due to COVID and she was living with her parents in Mankachar with her children. 

In Guwahati, a teenager attempted suicide after his father was arrested and put in jail during the crackdown. The teenaged boy is now undergoing treatment in a city hospital.

“All the arrested persons have been forwarded to judicial custody under various sections of the Child Marriage Act, IPC (Indian Penal Code), and POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, 2012,” said a senior police official.

A man arrested by Assam police in Dispur as part of a crackdown on child marriages.
A man arrested by Assam police in Dispur as part of a crackdown on child marriages.

Surprisingly, there were no fresh arrests made since Saturday even as Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the drive would continue till the Assembly elections in 2026.

Also read: Assam crackdown on child marriages continues, sparking women’s protest

Assam has a high rate of maternal and infant mortality, with child marriage being cited as the primary cause. An average of 31 per cent of marriages registered in the state are in the prohibited age group, according to the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5).

Opposition slams Himanta government

Major opposition parties, including the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), questioned the BJP-led government for its failure to act against the agencies which are mandated to protect child rights. 

Congress MP from Kaliabor Lok Sabha constituency, Gaurav Gogoi, called the drive a “farce”. “It seems the police are instructed to investigate cases that are decades old without proper enquiry or adherence to proper procedure,” he said.

Gogoi added that people are not fooled by the government action. “It is nothing but a PR exercise for the Chief Minister under whose tenure mafia, crimes against women and elderly, drugs and kidnapping have increased. Police are reprimanded by the Gauhati High Court for failing in their investigation, especially in the Arnai Bora murder case,” he further said. 

AIUDF general secretary Aminul Islam claimed that the government is carrying out the crackdown on child marriage under provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) without framing the requisite rules. “The PCMA of 2006 came into effect in 2007. Since it is a Central act, the states have to frame the rules. From 2007 to 2014, the state was under Congress rule, and since then, under BJP. Why didn’t the government of the day frame the rules?” Islam questioned.

Assam women protest at the Laharighat police station against the arrest of their husbands.
Assam women protest at the Laharighat police station against the arrest of their husbands.

He pointed out that the incumbent CM had been holding health departments since 2007 but did nothing then. “It is a mere political gimmick to divert people’s attention from real issues like the lackadaisical Union Budget and Adani scam,” Islam claimed.

‘Panicky and chaotic’

“PCMA provides that the minimum age of marriage is 21 for men and 18 years for women,” explained Abdur Rezzaque Bhuyan, a senior lawyer of Gauhati High Court. “The Act criminalises the support of child marriages and provides for rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, along with a fine in several cases, which may extend to ₹1 lakh.” 

“Though this came into force in January 2007, there is no awareness of child marriage in our society,” Bhuyan rued. “The recent action of the Assam government, particularly the home department, is very panicky and chaotic. Arrangements should have been made for the prohibition of child marriages. I personally support such actions of the government,” he said. 

Bhuyan added that the government should also book all the police officers under whose jurisdiction some 4,074 child marriages have taken place in the state. 

Poor implementation

Further, Bhuyan pointed out that child marriage is a very old menace in the country. To stop it, the British government enacted the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. “But we have not noticed any action from 1929 till the day. This law was subsequently repealed and enacted in 2006, bringing some stringent punishments on offenders,” he added. 

“Under the new legislation, the government should appoint child marriage prohibition officers by a gazette notification. No appointment has been made till today. It reflects the attitude of the government — that it is not serious about the menace,” he said.

On January 23, the Assam Cabinet approved a crackdown on child marriages as the NFHS-5 carried out between 2019 and 2020 showed that the percentage of women aged between 20 and 24 married before the legal age of 18 in the state was 31.8 per cent, compared to the national figure of 23.3 per cent.

Prohibited under various laws

However, Krishna Bezbaruah, a woman lawyer from Jorhat, supports  the government crackdown. “Sexual relationship with a child under the age of majority is a criminal offence under different sections of IPC, POCSO Act, Special Marriage Act and other Indian laws. Consent to marriage or sexual relationships by a minor girl is not valid in law. So the government is taking steps to restrict the growing incidents of violence against women in our state as well as in the whole country,” she said.

Social worker Syed Habib Ullah from Guwahati said: “Poverty and lack of access to quality education are the major causes of child marriage. For girls working in tea gardens, employment at the tea garden is more accessible than quality education. Education and the accompanying fees for supplies can be costly for poor families.”

Child brides face physical and emotional trauma. The health risks include  complications during pregnancy and childbirth. There is also higher risk of domestic violence, as they are physically and emotionally more vulnerable than adult women. Furthermore, child brides are often unable to exercise their basic rights and have limited autonomy, which can have a detrimental impact on their mental and physical wellbeing.

Ullah doesnt see the crackdown stopping child marriage. It calls for a social drive, he said. “What is the need of the hour is awareness of the evil effects of child marriage in our society, especially among the illiterate people. The government should not go back to the past cases, but it should stop all such cases in future,” he added.

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