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Crackdown on child marriage in Assam

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Crackdowns on child marriages Assam
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma

According to Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, 3047 persons have been arrested in the ongoing drive against child marriage, so far, but only 251 of them have been able to get bail. This shows that the arrests are, by and large, both legal and correct. He said the drive shall continue until 2026. The Assam crackdown on child marriages has led to an impassioned outburst from Left-Liberal and Muslim Right Wing activists. In the following, I will show how malicious their fulminations against the Assam government are and why the latter must be lauded for upholding the law.

Breast Beating By Left-Liberal and Muslim Right-Wing Activists

Left-Liberal and Muslim Right Wing activists descended in droves beating their breasts along predictable lines over this crackdown. They are so utterly illogical that their ignorance and hypocrisy are pathetic. I will comment on some of the prominent ones among them. One author says that the Assam chief minister’s crackdown must stop because, by criminalizing child marriage, the Assam government is undermining the importance of choice and prevention, and tearing families apart in the process. By God, it is not the Assam government, which has criminalized child marriages.

There is a proper central Act (Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006) for this since January 2007 and it is uniformly applicable to every state. In fact, in terms of Section 1(2), it applies to all citizens of India without and beyond India also. Second, if someone is raising the issue of choice and prevention in 2023, she must be informed that she is barking up the wrong tree. These things ought to have been debated in the Parliament when the law was being enacted, not in articles and not now! As for the lamentation of families being torn apart, she must know that when a murderer is hanged, his family is also torn apart. It is not the responsibility of society or the State to bother about a criminal’s family. If he was so much concerned about his family, he should not have committed that crime in the first place! By the way, have these people also bothered about the family of Ajmal Kasab or sent them some financial help through secret channels? In a similar vein, another author cries that Assam’s crackdown on child marriages leaves behind young women and sobbing children—as if all other millions of criminals do not have young women and sobbing children to support!

AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi
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Questioning the motive behind the crackdown, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi has said that the Assam government should have concentrated on increasing literacy levels if it was actually seized of the problem of child marriage. Owaisi also sought to know who will be responsible for the women left in the lurch following the arrest of the men of the house. By God, do we ask the same questions in respect of any other criminal in the country also? Why this wave of sympathy, if not for the reason that the accused happen to be mostly Muslims?

Many authors simply want to invoke sympathy by projecting the episode as a tear-jerker story. One article says that it has left the families in anguish. Another article says that legislation, education, and government action must be used together to help families keep teenage girls in school. For their kind information, the issue of legislation was settled 16 years ago and the law does not provide for any discrimination in its application. By the same logic, education, moral education, employment, and government action must be used together to keep young men responsibly at home and not indulge in kidnappings for ransom, murders, rapes, drugs, and the like. Yet another article calls it cruelty in the name of children. Interesting stupidity—by the same logic, punishment to a rapist could be called cruelty in the name of women!

Another set of authors has tried the pontificator’s attitude of advocating education, etc. One of them says that the solution to the child marriage problem lies in schools and not in mass arrests. In the same vein, another says that the answer is schools, not jails. Yet another article says that we must invest in changing social norms to end child marriage. They do not understand that all these notions apply equally to all types of crimes. Given proper education, probably many male criminals could find something more respectable and productive to do instead of committing crimes.

These people are mischievously presenting generality alongside specificity. Like education, there are many other ‘desirable’ things for any society. The nation-state is striving hard for them but is obviously under no legal obligation to necessarily keep every citizen alive and educated. If Muslim girls do not attend school in spite of the government having provided practically free school education; who is responsible for that? As for talking of changing social norms, the author seems to be living on another planet. Apparently, she does not have the faintest idea of what Muslim society is like and how attempts at social reforms in the past have floundered on the hard rock of orthodoxy. Such ignorance can only be pitied.

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In any case, why do their hearts bleed only when the arrested people are Muslims? Is it not because of their anti-BJP stance? The answer is quit obvious. Their hypocrisy has, in fact, crossed all limits. Let us face it. They are shedding crocodile tears because practically most of the accused arrested are from the Muslim community and there is a BJP government in the state. The real target of their ire and frustration is the BJP government—child marriage-related arrests are only a convenient excuse.

One author has suggested that rather than sending the husbands of the victim girls to jail and re-victimizing them, it would be prudent for the cops to take stringent action against the religious priests who solemnize minors’ marriages without due diligence and sensitize the masses through them. This is a dangerously misplaced and legally wrong argument. In the first place, police do not have any discretion given to them by the law. Section 9 of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 provides for punishment for male adults marrying a child.

Also Read: Child marriage leaves deep psychological scars

Any police officer, who, in a fit of liberalism, zeal for social reform, or under the influence of the propaganda of the Left-Liberal gang and Muslim Right Wing knowingly decides to spare the husbands of child brides, will face departmental action leading to dismissal from service as well as criminal prosecution. As far as the person(s) who perform, conduct, direct, abet promote, or permit any child marriage (including family members, as well as the religious figures performing the rituals), punishment has already been provided for in Sections 10 and 11.

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As for the suggestion of the so-called ‘sensitization of the masses’, the simple fact is that it is not the job of the police—exceeding the mandates of their duty may, in fact, land them in trouble on trumped-up charges, such as violating the privacy and ‘purdah’ of Muslim homes under the pretext of sensitizing the people, especially women. Any attempt at social reform cannot depend only on the governmental initiative—the people have actually a greater share of responsibility. When the British abolished Sati in India through the Bengal Sati Regulation, of 1829, they were not even a sovereign power in India—they merely enforced the regulation in the area under their control and did not bother about the consequences. They had neither the time nor the resources to ‘sensitize the masses’ as such authors desire—this was accomplished by the labors of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy.      

Criticisms Are Actually Politically Motivated

Who are these people to comment upon the social merits or demerits of the present Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, and what gives them the authority to do so? This law, which came into effect on January 10, 2007, replaced the Child Marriage Restraint Act, of 1929 (famous as the Sarda Act), which was enacted by the British and has been hailed as a great piece of legislation by all and sundry. No one criticized its social relevance in the 78 years of its existence. And, for the sake of argument, if the Left-Liberal and Muslim Right Wing activists have had any problem with the Sarda Act, what prevented them from voicing their criticism all these 78 years—particularly when, for the most part of it, they had those political parties in power in the center which were ideologically sympathetic to their views.

Do these people mean to say that our lawmakers (representatives of the people) are not serious or sincere enough, or that they are utterly ignorant of the social realities of this country? Do they mean to say that the 2006 law was made just for fun? For the sake of argument, even if it is accepted that they could not prevail upon the elected representatives to reconsider the demerits of first the Sarda Act and then the 2006 Act, what prevented them from approaching the Supreme Court? Since they did not do so in 94 years since 1929, it can only mean that their present fulmination against the enforcement of the Act is driven essentially because of their problems with the BJP and because the accused are mostly Muslims, and not with the law per se. Their frustration against the Assam government is nothing but a desperate, opportunistic attempt to malign the BJP government and brand it as anti-Muslim! Why is it that they are talking about the level of education, employability, or ‘awareness’ of the child brides only when they happened to be Muslims living under a BJP state government? Their wickedness and chicanery scream out.

The Law Must Be Upheld At All Costs

Contrary to what the Left-Liberal and Muslim Right Wing activists have been fulminating, the simple fact is that once we have a duly enacted law in place and the constitutionality of which has not been commented upon adversely by the Supreme Court, state governments are legally bound to enforce them. The governments, not to speak of the police, do not have any discretion in this regard.

Which provision in the Constitution of India or any law says that the state governments have the discretion to not enforce a law simply because it supposedly hurts the Muslim community or that they must, at least, defer the enforcement of the law until such time that the level of education, employability or ‘awareness’ of the Muslim girls (and perhaps men too) improved? In any case, no one knows when that will happen. The law does not give such arbitrary powers to anybody.  In fact, the governments would be failing in their constitutional duty, if they do not enforce the law.

The Left-Liberal and Muslim Right Wing activists are making much of an isolated observation of the Guwahati High Court. Granting pre-arrest bail to nine people on February 15, the HC had objected to the police invoking POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012) in that case, and the claimed necessity of custodial interrogation. In any case, we are given to understand that the Assam chief minister has said that while men who married girls below 14 years of age would be booked under the POCSO, those marrying girls between 14 to 18 years would be booked under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.

I do not mean to say that besides the laws, social, cultural, political, and economic initiatives at various levels and from various corners do not have their place in the life of a country and its people, particularly with respect to social evils. However, the lack of such initiatives or their pendency cannot be invoked as a reason to stall legal action. Any such idea is fraught with the dangerous possibility of their selective and rampant abuse for vested political interests—this is precisely the reason that the application of laws is kept bereft of any discretionary powers.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Muslim society regards child marriage as a social evil in the first place! In respect of Muslim girls, the marriage of a minor who has attained puberty, defined as 15 years in the case of Muhammad Ibrahim Rashid (1912) is considered valid. One hundred and ten years later also in August 2022, in the case of Fija, the Delhi High Court also ruled that as per Mohammedan Law, a minor girl who had attained the age of puberty could marry without the consent of her parents on attaining puberty, and has right to live with the husband even when below 18 years. Earlier, in June 2022, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had also ruled the same in the case of Gulam Deen. In August 2022, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) moved the Supreme Court against the High Court orders. In January 2023, the Supreme Court decided to examine whether girls as young as 15 years can enter into wedlock on the basis of custom or personal law when such marriages constitute an offense in statutory law.

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The Assam chief minister has rightly stated that the police will retrospectively book people who have participated in child marriage in the last seven years and the focus will especially be on “mullahs, Kazis, and pujaris” conducting these marriages. We must applaud the Assam chief minister because violators of laws, who have been pampered for the politics of vote bank; who have had been treated with kid gloves supposedly because their ‘sentiments could be hurt’ and thereby cost dearly in terms of votes, are, at least for once, receiving the full force of the heavy stick of the law. They must understand that, in the name of an unwritten ‘special status’, they cannot have ‘preferential treatment’ in the matter of criminal law. We only needed someone like Himanta Biswa Sarma to drive the point home that the laws of the land cannot discriminate amongst people and they shall be enforced irrespective of community or religion!

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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