Guwahati: By 2026, Assam will eliminate the menace of child marriage and if one believes in chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s commitment, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Dispur is ready to fight against the social evil with full political will.

Child marriage is a social scourge, and the Assam government is committed to ensure the evil practice is stopped, stated Sarma.

The saffron leader attracted national and international media headlines with a major crackdown on child marriages launched on February 3. Assam police forces picked up over 3000 individuals (including 93 females) following 4,235 registered first information reports (FIRs) across Assam. Most of them are still in judicial custody (at temporary jails), some got bail and a few remain in police custody.

The arrested individuals include mostly the accused and perpetrators, but they are not targeted because of their religious affiliations, asserted Sarma, adding that the ongoing drive against this social menace will continue till 2026, the year Assam is scheduled to go for the next legislative assembly elections. He also claimed that the crackdown has positively impacted the society as several families lately cancelled pre-scheduled marriages of underage brides (and grooms).

Needless to mention that Sarma is one of the longest serving health ministers in Assam. He took the charge of Assam health ministry in 2006 and continued till 2015 (during the Congress rule). Later, he joined the BJP and again took the responsibility in 2016 for a full five years. His efforts to save lives during the Covid-19 pandemic were well appreciated. In May 2021, he took oath as the chief minister of Assam and started many missions that remained unaccomplished in the previous years. Sarma’s latest priority emerges to bring down mother & infant mortality rates in Assam.

Pointing out that the child marriage has been banned in India for nearly a century as it always threatens the lives, well-being and future of girls, Sarma announced his firm decision on 26 January to erase the social menace. Later, the Assam cabinet approved the proposal to take stern action against the men who married underage girls under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act). Recently, a cabinet sub-committee for taking care of child marriage victims was also formed.

Recent data from National Family Health Survey reflects that Assam continues to record higher number of child marriages as well as cases of teenage pregnancy than all India levels. It is established that child marriages in Assam have directly influenced the mother and infant mortality rates. Assam loses around 195 mothers among 100,000 during child births (national average is 97 deaths per 100,000 live births). Similarly, it records 36 infant deaths per 1,000 live births (where national average is 28).

The drive against child marriages, though logically supported by every conscious citizen, invited massive public outrage too from different corners and at least two victims of circumstance committed suicide fearing impending police action. Hundreds of young women (some may have attained minimum legal age of marriage ie 18 years) gathered at the police stations, crying for their husbands’ release. Many lodged protest demonstrations against the administrative action towards their ‘innocent’ husbands and relatives.

Opposition parties, including the Congress, Asom Jatiya Parishad, All India United Democratic Front, also criticized the action as an “abuse of law for political gains”. AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi came down heavily against the BJP-led government for the mass arrests concerning the unlawful marriages. They alleged that the drive was planned to harass the Muslim families in Assam. Owaisi also questioned CM Sarma about the fate of girls and women whose husbands were taken into custody.

Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation also urged the government to immediately sanction at least Rs 2,000 per month (from the CM’s relief fund) as financial assistance to the affected teenagers/women whose husbands have been detained or arrested. The foundation, even though it supports the government’s initiative to eradicate the menace of child marriage by penalizing the perpetrators, insisted on extending due financial and legal support to the victims. It also asked the concerned authorities not to ignore the children born out of child marriages.

Even the higher court in Guwahati criticized the government for detaining all these people with non-bailable charges under the POCSO act, rape, etc and creating havoc in their private lives. Granting anticipatory bail to a group of individuals over the crime, the Gauhati High Court observed that there was no need for custodial interrogation of the accused persons. It termed the mass arrest of individuals a bad idea, considering the children and elder members in their families. The court emphasized on a “society-driven change” over the issue than adopting punitive actions.

Unmoved by the criticism, Sarma recently claimed that the stringent step, first of its kind in India by any government, received necessary support from various sections in the society, including the religious minority leaders. With an aim to pursue zero tolerance against this social menace, he emphasized on a robust ecosystem in Assam against the illegal practice of child marriage. The energetic leader opined that the government and law enforcement agencies along with the village heads, self-help groups, etc must be made the stakeholders in the ecosystem.

Also Read | Assam’s Noonmati double murder case: Woman, two friends arrested

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