Over 1,000 persons have been arrested since Monday night in the second round of a statewide crackdown against child marriage in Assam.
The first round of the crackdown, launched in February as part of the BJP-led state government’s efforts to end the menace of child marriage within five years, had seen the arrest of at least 3,141 persons for either marrying underage girls or facilitating such marriages.
The legal age of marriage in India is 18 for females and 21 for males.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who took to X to announce the crackdown on Tuesday, said the number of persons arrested by the state police in the “massive crackdown” against child marriage “now stands at 1039 by 1.01 pm”.
In an earlier tweet, the number of people arrested in the special operation that started “in the early dawn hours” stood at over 800.
Sarma had revealed in January his government’s intent to end child marriage within five years, the trigger being the findings of the National Family Health Survey (NHFS)-5 conducted between 2019 and 2020 by the Centre.
The survey revealed the percentage of underage mothers or pregnant girls in the state at an “alarming” 11.7 per cent, much higher than the national average of 6.8 per cent, reflecting “rampant” child marriage, a root cause of high maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate in Assam.
A month after taking over as chief minister in May 2021, Sarma had asserted his government’s intention to check the population growth, identifying increasing numbers as the root causes of poverty, unemployment and encroachment of land.
The number of people arrested from various districts since Monday, according to the police, included 192 from Dhubri, around 150 from Barpeta, 39 from Bongaigaon, 34 from Cachar district, 28 from Goalpara district and six from Sonitpur district.
However, no break-up of the community they belonged to was provided.
In the crackdown carried out in February, around 60 per cent of the arrested were reportedly from the Muslim community, mostly Bengali-speaking, and the remaining belonged to the Hindu and other communities. Assam’s Muslims are estimated to constitute over 34 per cent of the total 3.2 crore population.
A police officer said the arrested people have been booked either under the Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act), 2012, or the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
The chief minister had said in January that men marrying girls under 14 years would be booked under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act), 2012, and those marrying girls between 14 and 18 years of age, will be booked under Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
The chief minister had also said in February that the crackdown was not directed at any specific community and that people from minority communities were supportive of the move.
The crackdown comes a day after Sarma said the ruling BJP does not want the vote of the ‘Miya’ living in the char areas for the next 10 years till they reform themselves by ending practices such as child marriage. Bengali-speaking Muslims are referred to as Miya in the state.
The arrests have triggered concern and worry among the affected families as was the case last time.
Two women, a Hindu and a Muslim from lower Assam, told the media on Tuesday that they wanted the government to release their husband and brother respectively.
The Hindu woman said her husband was the only earning member in the family. She said she and her baby girl “cannot survive” without her husband. The Muslim woman, whose brother was arrested, shared similar sentiments.