The Great and Sudden Joy of Ending Child Marriage in Assam

Child marriage is a social crime which harms girls. In Assam, police are busy arresting people so as to curb it. The CM is giving regular updates on arrests. So why doesn't it sit right?

The government of Assam and its Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma are responsible for the death, by suicide, of Khushbu Begum.

She was the mother of two children. Her husband had passed away due to COVID-19 just two years ago. She lived in Assam. It can be easy to assume that she had endured significant disease, depression and poverty since the premature death of her husband.

Then came the cruel drive by the chief minister of Assam to end the social crime of child marriage.

Khushbu Belgaum is among the 31% women in Assam who were married as before the legal age for marriage.

Assam’s CM, meanwhile, has suddenly realised that child marriage is a heinous social crime that needs to be stopped immediately. For this, he wants to teach a lesson to those people who are responsible for the child marriage of girls – who could it be, other than their fathers and husbands?

The chief minister ordered that all of them be arrested. And the police officers, obeying the order, have proactively launched a drive of mass arrests. According to the media, more than 2,700 people have been arrested and sent to jail on the charge that they have been involved in the crime of child marriage. 

Khushbu Begum was married several years ago. Her husband is dead. But she was filled with the fear that his father would be arrested because of her marriage. This fear is not without reason.

In Assam, the police are busy arresting people like him at various places as if this is its most urgent task at the moment. It is no coincidence that, as MP Badruddin Ajmal said, more than 90% of those arrested are Muslims. The CM says that action will be taken against everyone guilty of child marriage irrespective of the religion he belongs to. Does the CM want to arrest the fathers, relatives and husbands of these 31% of all women in the state? 

The CM says that he is only implementing the 2006 Child Marriage Act. Pundits, clerics or anyone else who has done the work of getting such marriages done can be punished in these laws. One need not guess which religion they will largely come from.

At various places, women are protesting against the arrests of their husbands, fathers and relatives. They are protesting in front of the police, blocking their way, but the police are determined to stop this social crime. Is it just a coincidence that the police are enthusiastically arresting mostly Muslims?

These arrests are similar to the large number of people being uprooted in the name of removal of encroachments. The majority of them are also Muslims. Even in that case, the Assam CM justifies that atrocity by saying that his determination to free Assam’s soil from illegal occupation is secular.

Also read: Assam Govt Evicts Over 800 Families From Village Populated Mostly by East Bengal-Origin Muslims

Child marriage is a social crime which harms girls.

So one can ask the Assam CM what his government was doing for the seven years it has been in power. How, suddenly, has the idea of implementing this law come to mind now?

And even if the intent is to implement the law, the maximum punishment for being found guilty in this law is jail for two years. According to the Supreme Court, in crimes in which the punishment is up to jail for 7 years, arrests should not be made. Notice should be given and investigation should be done. But when the intention is to harass Muslims on any pretext, every direction of the Supreme Court can be defied.

There is also the question as to whether arrests are justified in any way for marriages that took place many years ago, even before the law was made.

As we can see in the case of Khushboo Begum, she was the mother of two children. Her husband had passed away.

These women, to save whom the CM is arresting the men of their homes, are asking who will feed them and their children. 

The progressive Assam CM does not care about these questions. There is no hiding his diabolical joy over these arrests. He is making public statements on the number of arrests daily. He claims that these arrests will create fear among the people and they will desist from this evil.

Stopping child marriage is a progressive step, everyone feels that. There are differing voices. Let us leave them aside for the moment and agree with this proposition. Even then, all know that the matter is not so simple. Child marriage is closely related to education and social and economic security. Why is child marriage more prevalent among the so-called backward classes, Dalits and Muslims as compared to other sections? Due to illiteracy and poverty. Security is also a factor. Parents feel have that getting married will protect their girls from sexual violence. Child marriage also increases during the times of natural or social calamity.

According to studies, 43% of women in India between the ages of 20 and 24 are married before the age of 19 and 61% are married by the age of 21. It was found that child marriage in 2005-6 was 47.4% and declined to 26.8% in 2015-16.

How did this happen? Was a punitive method adopted to achieve this? No.

It was achieved by improving the economic condition of the people, increasing social well-being and feeling of security and actively spreading awareness. Meanwhile, the education of girls also increased proportionately. The contribution of all these factors in dissuading the families from child marriage has been noted and written about. 

It is feared that child marriage may increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason for this is also the same, that is, most of the families have become poorer and they are finding it difficult to raise girls. We have seen an increase in child marriage even after incidents of mass violence.

Also read: Rise in Child Marriages in the Lockdown: How the Centre Ignored Data of Its Own Nodal Agency

It is not that the Assam CM does not know this. He was also the education minister before becoming the CM. What special steps did he take for the education of girls and to make the society aware about child marriage? During his tenure, he has also launched a campaign to shut down madrasas and run bulldozers on them. It has resulted in a significant drop in the number of school going girls in the Muslim community. By shutting down madrasas, the ground has been created for more child marriages. 

The diabolical nature of this new harassment campaign in Assam can be understood when we realise that those arrested can also be booked under laws related to rape, domestic violence and child abuse. The intention is to find new ways to punish and torture people, especially Muslims.

This campaign is bound to remind one of Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines. Duterte felt evil joy in killing people in the name of stopping drug abuse. You can see the same glee on the face of the Assam CM while talking about the anti-encroachment drive or this latest campaign against child marriage.

Only the Supreme Court can save the people of Assam, especially the Muslims, from their government. But how can it be moved?

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.