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Politics Drives Assam’s Crackdown on Child Marriage

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Politics Drives Assam’s Crackdown on Child Marriage

Most of those arrested for underage marriage in the Northeast Indian state are Muslim men.

Politics Drives Assam’s Crackdown on Child Marriage

Nureja Khatun, 19, holding her 6-month-old baby, requests police to release her husband Akbor Ali, sitting in a police van as they take him to court in Morigaon district of the Indian northeastern state of Assam, February 11, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

On February 3, Assam’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government launched a crackdown against underage marriage in the state. It led to the sudden arrest of over 3,000 men. The crackdown on underage marriages in the northeastern state has made national headlines, with distraught wives and separated families crying for justice.

Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has made no secret of the fact that the current crackdown against child marriage has been launched with elections in mind. “Our drive will continue till 2026 when the next assembly elections will be due. We are hopeful that by then, there will be no case of child marriage in the state,” Sarma said.

It is no coincidence that the majority of those arrested are Muslim men from the poorest sections of society, living in some of Assam’s most backward regions. As per media reports, most child marriages were reported in districts where Muslims are either the majority or constitute a large chunk of the population. Incidentally, Muslims comprise around 34 percent of Assam’s population.

Child marriage is illegal in India; the legal age for marriage for girls is 18 and for boys 21. Curbing child marriage is imperative. But the Assam government, with its “zero tolerance” policy toward the practice, is brazenly using it as a tool to incarcerate minorities for political motives.

The Assam government has defended its action by highlighting the most recent findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data, according to which 31.8 percent of those in the 20–24-year age group in Assam, were married when they were children i.e. before they turned 18. This is higher than the national average of 23.3 percent. Sarma has also cited the high teenage pregnancy rate of 16.8 percent in the state.

Early marriages result in early pregnancies and unsafe childbirths, and are often accompanied by high rates of maternal mortality. Simply put, it is a public health issue. Through long and sustained ground-based advocacy efforts both nationally and in Assam, there has been a declining trend in child marriages over the years. But the Assam government’s sudden decision to crack down on underage marriages on a war footing is likely to undermine these efforts.

On February 5, the government directed that the accused men be booked not just under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act but also under the more stringent law of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act. The accused, therefore, will be booked for rape or sexual assault of minors, which is punishable by a 20-year jail term.

Even the Gauhati High Court recently questioned the state on the applicability of the POCSO legislation in underage marriage cases. Justice Suman Shyam added, “Obviously, it (child marriage) is a bad idea. We will give our views, but at the moment, the issue is whether they should all be arrested and put in jail.”

Child rights activists, who have worked for decades on curbing child marriage, have critiqued the Assam government’s law and order approach to a social problem.

Disagreeing with the use of a crackdown to address child marriage, Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-founder of the HAQ Center for Child Rights, told The Diplomat that the Assam government’s “use of a law in a punitive manner displays a clear political agenda on the part of the state.”

What is needed “is a preventive strategy rather than penal measures. Empowering girls through education, access to health and jobs, and increasing the agency of girls will lead to a decrease in the incidence of child marriage,” she said.

Instead of criminalizing underage marriages, the government’s focus needs to be on improving the socioeconomic conditions of communities where young girls from poor families drop out of schools and are married off. Providing better livelihood opportunities, incentivizing girls’ education, and improving health facilities helps to curb child marriage.

As Mary E. John, professor of women’s studies, has conclusively shown, early marriage is most rampant among the poorest classes and nearly half the Muslim population in Assam belongs to the poorest section in the state.

Areas that are underdeveloped, crime-prone, poverty-stricken, and unsafe for women tend to see girls being married off at an early age. These issues need to be addressed, but the Assam government does not seem inclined to tackle these systemic issues. Doing so would require resources and long-term commitment from the authorities.

It is harassment of minorities, not social reform, that is the objective of the Assam government’s current crackdown.

Muslims in Assam are already bearing the brunt of the BJP government’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act. This 2019 law legitimizes citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants, while making it incumbent on Muslims to provide proof of their citizenship.

Threats of deportation and detention camps have already made the lives of poor and illiterate Muslims difficult in this border state. The crackdown on underage marriages, which has resulted in police picking up and arresting husbands, in-laws, and even fathers, who had married off their minor daughters years ago, has caused havoc in people’s lives. Testimonies of women whose husbands have been booked for child marriage reveal that most are extremely poor daily wage laborers, and the sole earning member of their families.

Opposition parties in Assam have expectedly lashed out against the government. Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi held Sarma responsible for the recent death of a pregnant 16-year-old married girl. Sarma’s crackdown, he pointed out, “has led to pregnant teenagers avoiding hospitals for childbirth. The infant is without a mother and the father is in jail.”

The BJP, which heads the government both at the center and in the state, promotes a Hindu supremacist agenda. Its communal polarization of society has helped it reap electoral benefits, bringing it to power in Assam in 2016 and 2021. It could consolidate its gains in the build up to the 2026 assembly election.

In Assam, Bengali-speaking Muslims have always been perceived as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The state has a complex history of Assamese nationalism where ethnic and linguistic faultlines have divided the state. Under BJP rule, the divide is more along religious lines, marked by “othering” of Muslims, whether they speak Assamese or Bengali.

Targeting minorities and Muslims through draconian measures like criminalizing underage marriages helps fuel the BJP’s polarizing agenda. Punitive actions to deal with child marriage will only push the problem underground.