Sixteen eminent citizens from Assam have in a joint representation to the National Commission for Women flagged “gross violation of human and women’s rights” in Assam in the “name of ending the menace” of child marriage.
They have urged the commission to intervene to end the “atrocious actions” taken by the state government as part of the crackdown and get it to release all those arrested and withdraw all the cases where the law was retrospectively applied.
They also asked the commission to direct the state government to launch a campaign to educate people about the harmful effects of child marriage.
The representation was sent on Wednesday, under the aegis of the Guwahati-based Sustha Samaj Bikash Chakra (SSBC), a voluntary organisation.
Assam police launched a state-wide crackdown against child marriage on February 3, registered more than 4,000 cases and arrested over 3,000 people. The legal age for marriage in India is 18 for women and 21 for men.
“We, some concerned citizens of the state, are deeply disturbed at the mindless manner in which the problem of child marriage is being tackled by the government of Assam,” the representation said.
“We are all for an expeditious solution to the phenomenon of child marriage, which has many adverse social and personal consequences apart from immense gender inequality.… Yet, the manner in which the mass arrests are being made can never be accepted.”
It added: “The arrestees are being booked under either of the two acts, viz, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (Pocso) and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA).… The total number of arrested stood at 3,047, of which 2954 (are) men and 93 women.”
The signatories described the crackdown as “a rash political decision which led to suffering of innocent women and children born out of marriages which were solemnised much before these arbitrary police actions ordered by the government”.
They said many young women were living in extreme despair, fearing a future without their husbands (who have been arrested), and pregnant teenaged wives were avoiding hospitals and turning to home deliveries and abortion pills for fear of being outed as child brides.
“During these operations women also have been arrested and some of them have spent about a month in detention camps. This is entirely against the provisions specified under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act which clearly prohibits (the) imprisonment of women (under the act),” the representation said.
“Gauhati High Court also observed that the ongoing crackdown on child marriages is causing havoc and questioned the rationale in invoking charges under the Pocso Act in such cases.”
The signatories said that what the state government was “failing to realise is that child marriage is not a lawand-order problem to be tackled through punitive measures”.
“What is needed is a scientific approach to identify socio-economic and demographic factors that make adolescents vulnerable to child marriage and assess their needs and take steps to bring about a holistic change in the lives of the poor and the deprived,” they said.
The 16 signatories include scholar and SSBC president Apurba Kumar Baruah, social scientist Hiren Gohain, historian Sheila Borah, former Cotton College principal Sitanath Lahkar and social activist Deben Tamuly.
They have written that the crackdown was started without satisfying the legal requirement of appointing child marriage prohibition officers.
“Only in February (5)... the govt suddenly designate(d) all the Gaon panchayat secretaries in the state as child marriage prohibition officers,” they said.
Baruah explained to this newspaper why the signatories considered the crackdown a rash and political decision.
He said that although the PCMA had been in place for a long time, the Assam government had not taken any steps to implement the act or educate illiterate village women about it.
Many have also seen the crackdown as a part of BJP chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s campaign “against immigrant Muslims or Miyas to polarise the electorate in Assam”, Baruah said.
Sarma has asserted the drive did not target any community. According to the Assam government, the police crackdown was launched to bring down the high maternal and infant mortality rates in the state, attributed mainly to “rampant” child marriage.