A crackdown on child marriages in India’s Assam state saw thousands jailed for allegedly abetting the marriage of minors.
More than 4,000 grooms, fathers of brides, priests, and officiators were arrested following the crackdown by the government last month.
On February 14, the Gauhati High Court ruled that the cases “are not matters of custodial interrogation, therefore, all the petitioners be released with immediate effect.”
The court noted that the arrests was “causing havoc in the private life of people.”
“There are children, there are family members, there are old people …. Obviously, it is a bad idea,” added the court.
As of February 14, there were 3,031 people arrested for 4,225 child marriage cases in the eastern state, including immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The crackdown triggered protests, mostly led by women whose husbands, family breadwinners, were arrested.
“My husband and my octogenarian father were picked up by the police,” complained Meherunissa Begum from the village of Birsingi in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district.
“They claimed I was underage when married. My husband is a daily wager and the only earning member. We are now left to starve,” she said.
Mumtaz Akhtar, a 50-year-old teacher, said her husband was also arrested for letting his daughter get married before she turned 18 years old.
“I told them my daughter was well past 18, a graduate when she married,” said Akhtar, adding that the one who officiated the wedding, who was also arrested, made a mistake in recording the right age.
“This is gross injustice,” she said. “They are targeting mainly Muslims.” The woman noted that most of the took place in the predominantly Muslim district of Dhubri.
The arrests also drew criticism from other quarters who said the government was targeting minorities.
State Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, however, said the arrests were done in “a neutral and secular action.”
He said it was necessitated by the “alarming” results of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, which found that Assam had an underage pregnancy rate of 11.7 percent, significantly higher than the national average of 6.8 percent.
The police have been ordered to charge men marrying girls below 14 years of age under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, and those marrying girls aged 14-18 under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.
Only 155 cases of child marriage were registered in 2021 and 138 in 2020 in Assam, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
The NFHS report, however, noted that 23.3 percent of women aged 20-24 years were married before the age of 18 in 2019-2021, a decrease from 27 percent compared to 2015-2016.
The dip has been disrupted by the pandemic when the number of underage marriages went up.
While Assam recorded 31.8 percent, West Bengal, Bihar and Tripura topped the list with 40 percent of such cases, according to the report.
These states, however, did not launch a “war” against children marriage as the government in Assam, said Father Suresh Mathew, editor of the Indian Currents weekly.
“A crackdown that distresses families is not the answer to this social malaise,” said the priest, adding that the government should instead provide education, specially to girls, and create awareness about marriage.
He said that while child marriages should not be tolerated, change should be initiated through social transformation.
Illiteracy, inequality, poverty, lack of opportunity and social norms are the most common reasons for child marriages, said the priest.
He said a rise in literacy and economic stability can end the phenomenon of child marriage.
Empowerment is the path to stopping child marriage, said Vidya Reddy and Sannuthi Suresh of Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse in Chennai.
Data from the United District Information System for Education show that dropout rates at the secondary level in Assam is 20.3 percent, which is much higher than the national average of 14.6 percent.
Research published by civil society organizations Girls Not Brides and Save the Children also show that laws alone are not sufficient and may be the least effective way of combating child marriages.