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Eliminating child marriage? Why is Assam CM so restive despite abuse of law allegation

By Nava Thakuria* 

By 2026, will the Assam government eliminate the menace of child marriage, if one goes by State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s "commitment"? The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Dispur claims to be fighting against the social evil in the State with full political will. Child marriage is a social scourge, and the State government is committed to ensure the evil practice is stopped, states Sarma.
The saffron leader has attracted national and international media headlines with a major crackdown on child marriages launching on 3 February. Assam police forces picked up over 3,000 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 the police custody.
The arrested individuals, include mostly the accused and perpetrators, are not targeted because of their religious affiliations, claimed Sarma, adding that the ongoing drive against this social menace will continue till 2026, the year Assam is scheduled to go for the next legislative assembly elections. He also claimed that the crackdown has positively impacted the society as several families lately cancelled pre-scheduled marriages of underage brides (also grooms).
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 BJP and again took the responsibility in 2016 for a full five years. His tireless efforts to save the lives during the Covid-19 pandemic were well appreciated. 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 & infant mortality rates in Assam.
Pointing out that the child marriage is banned in India for nearly a century as it always threatens the lives, well-being and futures of girls, Sarma announced his decision on 26 January to erase the social menace. Later the State cabinet approved the proposal to take stern actions 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.
Recent data from the National Family Health Survey reflects that Assam continues to record higher number of child marriages as well as cases of teenage pregnancy than all India levels. It is established that the child marriage in the State has directly influenced the mother and infant mortality rates. Assam loses around 195 mothers among 100,000 during the child births (national average is 97 deaths per 100,000 live births). Similarly, it records 36 infant deaths per 1,000 live births (where national average is 28).
The drive against child marriages, though getting wide support, 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 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.
Guwahati High Court criticized the government for detaining people with non-bailable charges under the POCSO Act, rape, etc. 
Opposition parties including the Congress, Asom Jatiya Parishad, All India United Democratic Front, etc. also criticized the action terming it an abuse of law for political gains. AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi came down heavily against the BJP-led government for the mass arrests concerning the unlawful marriages. They alleged that the drive was planned to harass the 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 supports to the victims. It also asked the concerned authorities not to ignore the children born out of child marriages.
Even the higher court in Guwahati 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, Gauhati High 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 in their families. The court emphasized a society-driven change over the issue than adopting punitive actions.
Unmoved by the criticism, Sarma recently claimed that the stringent step, first of its kind in India by any State government, received necessary support from various sections in the society including the religious minority leaders. With an aim to pursue zero tolerance against this social menace, he emphasized on a robust ecosystem in Assam against the illegal practice of child marriage. He insisted, that the government and law enforcement agencies along with the village heads, self-help groups, etc. must be made the stakeholders in the ecosystem.
---
*Senior journalist based in Assam

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