Guwahati: Amid protests in many parts of Assam and a teenager’s suicide, the number of those arrested in the state-wide crackdown on child marriages went up to 2,442, forcing Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to come up with a justification for the drive.
Opposition parties also lashed out at the BJP-led government, terming the arrests of teenage husbands and family members as “abuse of law” for political gain and equating the police action with “terrorising people”.
A 17-year-old girl allegedly died by suicide in Assam’s Cachar district after her family prevented her from going ahead with wedding plans with her lover, police said on Monday.
She had prepared to elope with her lover, but the family came to know about it and prevented her.
“There have been about 19 arrests in child marriage cases in neighbouring villages,” a relative of the girl said.
The crackdown on child marriage also led to the cancellation of several weddings of underage girls in Assam’s Barak Valley comprising Hailakandi, Cachar and Karimganj districts.
Many affected families, including large numbers from minority communities, also claimed that identity documents like Aadhaar cards with erroneous dates of birth of women were cited by the police while registering cases and arresting people.
However, Sarma justified the crackdown, pointing out that nearly 17 per cent of over 6.2 lakh pregnant women in Assam last year were teenagers.
Citing data from the Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) portal, the chief minister said 1,04,264 women or 16.79 per cent of the expecting mothers, were in the age group of 19 years or less.
“Our drive against child marriage is for public health & public welfare as teenage pregnancy ratio in Assam is quite alarming. We’re resolved to continue this drive until we fulfil our objective,” he tweeted.
Sarma also urged the people of the state to cooperate with the administration in controlling “this harmful trend”.
Inspector General of Assam Police (Law and Order) Prasanta Kumar Bhuyan told PTI, “The operation is going on against child marriage. The total arrests currently stand at 2,442, including 78 women”.
These arrests have been made based on 4,036 FIRs related to child marriage across the state, he added.
Bhuyan said that out of the total arrested people, 65 have so far secured bail.
With the large number of household heads, in many cases the sole bread earners, being arrested, protests were staged in different parts of the state with wives, children and family members coming out on the street.
Women protested in a dozen police stations in Dhubri, Morigaon, Nagaon, Cachar, Karimganj and Majuli districts.
Police officials asked them to leave and women constables had a hard time clearing the premises.
“Our menfolk have been taken away by the police, leaving us without anyone to look after or to provide food for us,” said Reshma Khatun, one of those protesting at Dhubri.
An elderly resident of Bhuragaon in Morigaon district claimed that most of the child marriage cases were registered based on data collected from local health workers, who keep track of pregnant women, lactating mothers and families with small children to ensure coverage of government schemes.
“These health workers use Aadhaar card information, as this is the latest document in possession of the villagers. However, errors related to birth dates have been spotted in the Aadhaar cards, but no one took serious note,” he told PTI.
Till Monday evening, 151 people were apprehended in Dhubri district, followed by 149 in Nagaon and 139 each in Baksa, Biswanath and Hojai.
Dhubri registered the highest number of FIRs against child marriages at 382 cases, followed by Hojai (255) and Kokrajhar (209).
The opposition spoke against child marriage, but they raised concerns about the police action and urged judicial intervention.
Assam Trinamool Congress president Ripun Bora wrote to Gauhati High Court Chief Justice and sought his intervention against the “gross abuse of law” and urged him to “restrain” the state government from “such inhuman and unlawful activities”.
Assam Congress chief Bhupen Kumar Borah told PTI: “Earlier, our government had passed the law against child marriage. But the BJP government is misusing the law for their political gain. It has created a panic throughout the state.”
Addressing a press conference, Rajjor Dal chief and MLA Akhil Gogoi said if someone tries to “terrorise people” on the pretext of operation against child marriage, it cannot be tolerated.
He said, “Himanta Biswa Sarma is now saying he himself didn’t know till yesterday that there were no child marriage prohibition officers in the state. How can he then expect the common people to know about the laws and their provisions?” Earlier, questioning the motive behind the crackdown, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said that the Assam government should have concentrated on increasing literacy levels if it was actually seized of the problem of child marriage.
“Experts have said that if you want to stop child marriages, you have to open a lot of schools, (but) you have not done that. You have closed down the madrassas too which were imparting some form of education,” he alleged.
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The state cabinet had recently approved a proposal to book men who have married girls below 14 years of age under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO).
Cases under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 will be registered against those who have married girls in the age group of 14-18 years, the cabinet had decided.
The offenders will be arrested and the marriages declared illegal.
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