Guwahati: Nizara Begum, 18, is distraught. It’s been over 24 hours since her husband, 26-year-old Ismail Ali, was arrested from their house in Bothimari, a village in Assam’s Baksa district. Since then, her 3-month-old son has been crying incessantly and all Nizara can do is try her best to quiet an inconsolable child.
In Majuli, after two sleepless nights, 18-year-old Mousumi Hazarika can finally breathe easy. Her husband, 27-year-old Pappu Hazarika, who was arrested Thursday night from the couple’s home at Kamalabari in Majuli district, was released on bail Saturday afternoon.
It has been eight months since the couple got married and Mousumi was looking forward to the ‘Hokam’ ceremony for her unborn child this Sunday. Then, Pappu was arrested.
Both Ismail Ali and Pappu Hazarika were arrested in connection with the same offence — child marriage.
Assam Director General of Police G.P. Singh told the media that 4,074 cases of child marriage were registered over a period of 36 hours till Friday.
Suspects have chiefly been booked under two laws — the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. Among those facing charges are 52 qazis or magistrates of a Sharia court, who are legally empowered to, among other things, register Muslim marriages.
In a tweet he posted Saturday, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said: “The crackdown against child marriage continues for the second straight day with more than 2,200 people arrested so far. Our fight against this social crime will continue”.
The crackdown against child marriage continues for the second straight day with more than 2,200 people arrested so far. Our fight against this social crime will continue https://t.co/uBMFMwpvlr
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) February 4, 2023
Speaking to ThePrint, DGP Singh said that the crackdown was launched after data collected over the last couple of years showed that at least 8,000 people had been involved in child marriages.
“The magnitude of this crime is unfathomable. It was heartbreaking when I went through each case — girls barely into their teens getting married and pregnant. I will ensure that this is not just brought down but rooted out,” Singh told ThePrint.
Chief Minister Sarma has also said that the drive against child marriage will continue till the 2026 assembly election and that a helpline will also be launched.
On the parents allegedly found involved, Sarma said the government will send notices but won’t arrest them. About 3,500 people still to be arrested, he said, adding that those held for marrying partners above 14 years would be eligible for bail.
The crackdown came even as the state’s cabinet decided to charge men who marry girls below 14 under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences or POCSO Act. Meanwhile, those marrying teenagers between 14 and 18 years will be charged under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, the cabinet has decided.
The government action has drawn criticism, with parties like the opposition Congress calling for a more humane approach.
This is especially true for people like Mousumi and Nizara.
“We didn’t know anything about the law,” a dejected Nizara told ThePrint. “For us, it was a love marriage, we didn’t elope. Since he was taken away, my baby has been inconsolable. We are not even allowed to meet my husband. There’s no male family member at home now. We want the charges dropped and my husband released at the earliest. That’s all we want from the government.”
Ismail’s father, Islam Ali (45), was also arrested the same day as his son. Both are daily wage labourers and the only earning members in their family.
They are among the 120 people arrested in Baksa district, where authorities have registered 153 cases.
Also Read: ‘POCSO overrides personal laws’ — Karnataka HC holds pregnant Muslim minor’s marriage invalid
‘Tip of the problem’
At a press briefing he addressed at the police headquarters in Guwahati Friday, DGP Singh said that the highest number of cases and arrests were registered in lower Assam’s Dhubri — out of 374 cases registered in the district, 126 people have been arrested Friday, the first day of the state-wide crackdown.
In Kokrajhar, which shares a boundary with Dhubri and comes under the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), 94 people have been arrested in 204 cases registered so far, while in Bongaigaon, there have been 87 arrests in 123 cases.
Among other places, central Assam’s Hojai has seen 96 arrests and 255 cases and in Barpeta 114 arrests and 81 cases.
Dhubri Superintendent of Police Aparna Natarajan calls it just “the tip of the problem”.
“Most of the cases are incidents that happened last year. We have registered 374 cases, as a part of which, several have been picked up and arrests have been made,” she told ThePrint, speaking about her district.
Natarajan said that the department looked at cases registered in the last three years and processed them in past two months. .
“The arrests are based on the date registered at the time of the wedding and it doesn’t matter if the person is an adult now,” she said, adding that a lot of the information came from the public.
She said that even before this crackdown, cases had been registered “as and when it happened”, but no concerted drive had been launched.
“These arrests are prompting the public to be more forthcoming with their information — so that we can prevent child marriages — not just cases that already happened, but about to happen,” Natarajan said.
Gunindra Talukdar, the district social welfare officer in Kokrajhar district, told ThePrint that it wasn’t just the lack of awareness but also social norms and economic conditions that often lead to child marriages.
“Even today, there are certain people who think of the girl child as a burden. But only a small percentage of people indulge in such acts. We have been successfully holding awareness camps in the area. Earlier, people didn’t even know about 1098 Childline helpline number,” said Talukdar.
Also Read: Marriage of 15 yr Muslim girl not void under Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, says high court
Of pregnant mothers and wailing children
A video that went viral showed a pregnant young woman sobbing in front of the Majuli police station for her husband’s release. The young woman is Mousumi and the video was shot Thursday night, soon after her husband Pappu Hazarika’s arrest.
After her husband’s release Saturday, Mousumi told a local news channel: “Whatever wrong we have done can’t be undone, but the new generation should not do this. They should be guided to pursue their education”.
But Nizara in Assam’s Baksa district now has another thing to worry about — her baby has stopped feeding.
“My baby won’t eat,” she told ThePrint on the phone. “It’s been hours now. I won’t live if anything happens to my child. I want my husband back or I will take extreme steps.”
Scenes played out in several parts of the state were the same — young women, some holding young children and some others pregnant, gathered outside police stations and pleading with law enforcement authorities as their husbands are taken away.
Opposition parties have criticised the crackdown as being harsh. Bobbeeta Sharma, vice-president and senior spokesperson of the Assam Congress told ThePrint social awareness, and not “drastic” steps like arrests, is key to the problem.
“There is a law against child marriage. Recently the Assam Cabinet has passed a decision to book persons marrying girls below 14 years,” she told ThePrint, referring to the cabinet decision taken Friday. “The CM is taking the drastic step of arresting husbands who have married such girls, perhaps to give a message. But while taking such a drastic step, he should also ask himself how such marriages happened despite the prevalent laws. This is a social problem where the people have to be made literate in legal matters.”
The state’s social welfare department and child and women’s rights commissions should work together with district administrations to hold awareness programmes, she said, adding that the priests, qazis, and others who conduct such marriages should also be brought under these drives.
The All BTC Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU), meanwhile, claimed it has been trying to urge the police to work against the practice in the Bodoland Territorial Region since 2015 but had found little support until now.
The BTR is an autonomous region of the state comprising the four districts of Udalguri, Chirang, Kokrajhar, and Baksa.
“We have been doing more than the government, and we found no cooperation from the police before,” ABMSU general secretary Taison Hussain told ThePrint. “Only a minuscule fraction of people are still involved in child marriages — they either forge documents or elope away.”
However, the move has also found support in some quarters, such as the regional political party, Raijor Dal.
“We welcome this move, though it should have been done much earlier. The social welfare department, child protection officers, and officials such as deputy commissioners should hold awareness meetings from time to time. The people living in the sandbars of Majuli, or the minority community in the Chars of Dhubri don’t have an education. They don’t know of such a law against child marriage,” said Raijor Dal general secretary Azizur Rahman told ThePrint.
What govt data says
According to the latest round of the National Family Health Survey, NFHS-5, in Assam, 31.8 per cent of women in the age group of 20-24 years are married before the age of 18 and 11.7 per cent of women between 15 and 19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey.
Although the survey was released in May, fieldwork for it was conducted between June 2019 to December 2019.
The NHFS-5 report also found that 21.8 per cent of men between the age of 25 and 29 were married before 21.
The figures were most alarming in Dhubri — 50.8 per cent of women between 20 and 24 years were married before 18, and 22.4 per cent between 15 and 19 years were either already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey.
Among others, Hojai (30.9, 15.6), Biswanath (25.3, 9.0), Barpeta (40.1, 14.2), Baksa (24.9, 12.3), and Kokrajhar (36.2, 11.3) districts also showed worrying figures.
Madhulika Jonathan, the chief of UNICEF Assam, told ThePrint that her team is working closely with child protection institutions at various levels to address the issue in a more holistic way.
“Child marriage, a deeply rooted social norm, and is glaring evidence of widespread gender inequality and discrimination. Children, particularly girls who live in rural areas or come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, are most vulnerable and at a greater risk. A higher proportion of child brides are found among those with little or no education,” she said.
Eliminating the practice, she said, would require collective efforts and a multi-disciplinary approach that is beyond legal provisions.
“UNICEF is committed to supporting the state on its two key flagship programmes — Mission Vatsalya and Mission Shakti together with the Assam Police Shishu Mitra programme. This will contribute towards the reduction in such incidents and bring behavioural changes among key stakeholders,” she told ThePrint.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
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