Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma makes no effort, unlike some of his colleagues, to conceal his distance from the Constitution of India. In his speech in the Assembly, he said, in relation to his policies against child marriage, the ratio of arrests of Muslims to Hindus was 55:45. He reportedly said he had got “some of our people picked up too otherwise you all (the Opposition) will feel bad”. “Our people” — where does such a phrase come from? It is the Hindutva conceptualisation of India where all non-Hindus are not “our people”. Whether the ratio declared is accurate or not, the communal mindset of the chief minister expressed in his own words is clear enough. The Preamble of the Constitution states, “We the people of India”, not we the people belonging to this or that religion. All citizens are “our citizens”.
Even after the damning data from the NFHS-5, which put Assam at the bottom of the list on many socio-economic indicators such as increasing child marriage, poor education levels and high rate of domestic violence, the Assam government had taken no steps for redressal. For example, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act mandates the setting up of child marriage prohibition officers and committees of citizens at the block level to spread awareness against child marriage and to intervene to directly prevent such marriages if they were to occur. There was not a single such officer appointed or committee formed till after the arrests in February this year. As the experiences of the more successful states like Kerala have shown, education is critical for the eradication of this social evil. Perhaps the chief minister, who quoted child marriage statistics from Muslim-populated districts like Dhubri, could learn especially from Kashmir which has one of the lowest percentages of child marriage in the country.
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I visited two districts in lower Assam along with a team of the All India Democratic Women’s Association that had surveyed many districts earlier. We met a number of victims of the Assam government’s policy against child marriage. I use the word victim deliberately because what is happening in the name of prevention and punishment is blatantly illegal on several counts.We found to our surprise that every single one of the scores of young women we met whose husbands, and in some cases other relatives too, had been arrested, was either pregnant or had a baby in her arms. In a blatantly unethical if not illegal action, the government had taken the personal data of the women, including their age, from the health department where the women had registered for treatment for a medical checkup or for that of their child, and handed it over to the police to make the arrests. This is nothing but the weaponisation of private health data which is available to the government for a limited purpose. To misuse such data without the woman’s consent to arrest her husband and other relatives, as the case may be, is not just an invasion of her privacy but is also a guarantee that other young women will stop going to government health centres, which will further worsen the already worrying health indicators such as infant and maternal mortality. Many told us, “if we had not gone to the health centre, this would not have happened”.
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The second illegality is the use of the PCMA with retrospective effect, stretching to seven years. The law does not permit it. Under the PCMA, a child marriage is not automatically anulled but is considered valid unless on attaining majority age one of the couple asks for it to be voided. Most of the girls we met, or who were earlier surveyed by AIDWA, have now crossed the age of 18 and not a single one of them has asked for the marriage to be voided. How can an arrest be made after the girl has become an adult and has not asked for annulment? Again, in several cases, the young people had eloped and their parents recognised their marriage later.
Thirdly, under Section 11 of the PCMA, no woman can be imprisoned. Among the victims we met was the mother of a boy who had eloped with a girl of 17. She had been imprisoned for almost a month and locked up in one of the notorious detention centres meant for so-called illegal immigrants, since the jails were too full. She told us that there were 26 other women also imprisoned under the PCMA. This too is illegal.
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The government declared that the more stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) would be applied to all child marriage cases where the child was 14 or below. This did not apply in any of the cases we had seen. Yet POCSO had been added to the FIR making it all the more difficult to get bail. The Gauhati High Court also strongly questioned the use of POCSO while granting bail to some of the accused, but it has not made a jot of difference to the government. The women we met spoke of the loans they had to arrange — between Rs 40,000 to 50,000 — to get their husbands out of jail. Thus the young women are the main sufferers, with a baby to look after, husbands in jail, having to borrow money for their release and many having to deal with their own health problems.
Finally, why should the Assam government declare that these measures will continue till the state assembly elections next year? This betrays the politically motivated nature of the campaign which, despite the disclaimer of the chief minister, has an undoubted communal colour.
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Child marriage is a social evil which must be eradicated. The cruel and legally questionable measures being adopted by the Assam government will not achieve this goal.
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo
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