Guwahati: The unprecedented crackdown on child marriages in Assam entered its sixth day Wednesday with 2,580 people — 1,560 Muslims and 1,020 Hindus — arrested from across the state, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told ThePrint.
Assam Director General of Police G.P. Singh told the media Friday that 4,074 cases of child marriages have been registered since the drive was launched Thursday night, and the highest number of cases and arrests were registered in lower Assam’s Dhubri district. Of the 374 cases in the district, 166 people were arrested till Wednesday, confirmed Dhubri Superintendent of Police, Aparna Natarajan.
Those arrested have been sent to judicial custody at the Matia transit camp in Goalpara. Five of the accused in Dhubri would be produced in court today, the SP added.
Speaking to ThePrint, Chairperson of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) Sunita Changkakati said that data on child marriage is not available because most of the cases go unreported.
“We have come across several incidents of child marriage in Assam — from Dhubri to Barak Valley, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, Majuli and other districts. We have held review meetings with stakeholders including the health department, district administration and police. It is highest in minority areas, but even within other communities, child marriage cases have come to light — particularly in tea garden districts, and the river island of Majuli among others,” said Changkakati.
“In lockdown, we saw many cases of child marriage. Some girls are as young as 9-10 years. The majority are around 12-15 years of age. Because of lack of education and high drop-out rate at school level, the number of cases of child marriage has increased. But this drive is appreciated, it will give a strong message to the people,” she added.
A recent review meeting of the ASCPCR in Barak Valley revealed that there are about 6,000 cases of teenage pregnancies in the three districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj, said Changkakoti.
The Assam government has converted two of its detention centres for ‘declared foreigners’ — Matia Transit Camp, which is the state’s largest detention centre, and the other at the premises of National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRiP) in Cachar district — into temporary prisons.
Speaking to ThePrint, a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Angshuman Sarma said that the crackdown should not have been done by criminalising certain individuals, but rather by focusing on the socio-economic factors responsible for child marriage. “Child marriage is a social evil. Among other parts, it is much prevalent in tea garden areas because of various factors — child labour, lack of quality education, poor health facilities for tea garden workers, especially girls, and a lack of personal awareness,” he said.
“The government should concentrate on creating livelihood opportunities and awareness in the society, imparting health and sex education among young people instead of criminalising individuals involved in child marriage,” said Sarma.
A large number of women have been holding protests in many parts of the state, particularly outside police stations and detention centres, against the arrest of their husbands and sons, saying they are now left with no means of income.
In a tweet Saturday, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the fight against the social crime of child marriage will continue till the 2026 assembly election and that a helpline will also be launched.
On Monday, tweeting that teenage pregnancy accounted for 16.8 per cent of over 6.2 lakh pregnancies in the state last year, he doubled down on his resolve to curb child marriages: “We’re resolved to continue this drive until we fulfil our objective. I urge the people to cooperate with us in controlling this harmful trend,” he wrote.
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Govt should look into protection & rehabilitation of women, children
Those arrested have chiefly been booked under two laws — the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012, and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. Among those facing charges are 52 priests and qazis, or magistrates of a Sharia court, who are legally empowered to register Muslim marriages.
According to 2011 Census, Hindus constitute 61.47 per cent of Assam’s total population (3.12 crore), while 34.22 per cent are Muslims.
Police said the crackdown was launched after data collected over the past couple of years found at least 8,000 people involved in cases of child marriage, including aiding it.
Taking to social media, Abdul Kalam Azad, human rights researcher and community worker in Assam, tweeted: “the intent of the move is being questioned and many see it as yet another attack on Muslim community.”
“Assam government crackdown on child marriage offender is whimsical and counterproductive. It will break the ongoing strong social movement against the menace of child marriage… The practice of child marriage has been rampant among the Miya Muslim and other marginalised communities in Assam. The prime reason behind child marriage is the practice of patriachary, poverty and limited or no opportunity for education and livelihood for girls in remote areas,” he wrote in a series of tweets.
Child rights activist in Assam, Miguel Das Queah, told ThePrint that the government should now look at the protection and rehabilitation of all women and children impacted in cases of child marriage.
“This has been sudden, which is why we are seeing huge public outrage. The message has been served, but it will face massive resistance, like it does even in a single case of preventing child marriage. On humanitarian grounds, it leads to the breakdown of a family unit — there will be anxiety because of the uncertainty on the future of the family including the spouse and the children,” said Miguel.
“There should have been some conversation around this action with communities, which would have minimised the public outcry,” he added.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)
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