Application of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012 and the Prevention of Child Marriages Act (PCMA), 2006 in Assam, leading to the crackdown on child marriages, have triggered a hullaballoo of opinions from different quarters. Mostly from the opposition and the communist fraternity. While the PCMA sets the legal age for marriage at 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys, the POCSO Act puts the legal age for consent as 18 years. The drive that started on February 3 across Assam led to over 3000 arrests in child marriage cases that were mainly one year old with few exceptions of older in some. POSCO is applied to men who married girls under 14, PCMA to those marrying girls between 14 and 18 with conviction entailing varying jail terms under either Act.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has rightly tagged child marriage as a ‘social crime’. In historical records, child marriage is considered a social evil. The crackdown against child marriage isn’t decided out of the blue. The decision has been taken after careful deliberation and consideration of all prevailing factors. Due to rampant child marriage, teenage pregnancies including infant and maternal mortality rates have seen a rise in Assam. According to the National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS-5) conducted by the Centre between 2019 and 2020 and released in 2022, to quote The Telegraph, “the proportion of underage mothers and pregnant girls in Assam was an ‘alarming’ 11.7 per cent. This was far higher than the national average of 6.8 per cent and reflected ‘rampant’ child marriage, one of the causes of the high maternal and infant mortality rates in the state.” The crackdown against child marriage is thus justified.
If we consider the status of child marriage in the 1930s in India, results are alarming. So far not much have been done to prevent it. To quote from Child Marriage: The Indian Minotaur by Eleanor Florence Rathbone, published in 1934, “The newly issued Indian Census Report for 1931 contains many disquieting revelations, but none more so than the huge increase in child marriage and the continuing enormous mortality of women due to premature maternity, bad mid-wifery, purdah and kindred social evils.” By then The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 that fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years was already effective. In 1949, this Act was amended, increasing the marriageable age of girls to 15. The amended Act, called Sarda Act, further increased the age limit for girls to 18 and boys to 21 in 1978. The PCMA Bill was passed in 2006.
Despite the amendments of the Bill over time and passing of the PCMA, child marriage rate in India was estimated at 27 per cent according to a 2015–2016 UNICEF survey report. No, this drive isn’t an abuse of law! It isn’t akin to terrorising people! The crackdown is not directed at any specific community. It is not against Muslims. It is against any person who has violated the POCSO Act and the PCMA Act. Amongst the arrested are violators from all communities. CM Sarma had said that both qazis and pujaris who solemnise and encourage child marriages would be booked. If majority of the arrested are Muslims, as pointed out in certain media platforms, it only reveals how child marriage is more rampant in this community. Even MLA Rafiqul Islam from All India United Democratic Front said that his party was against child marriage.
PCMA is not applicable to Jammu and Kashmir; this region with Muslim majority has the lowest child marriage cases as per Family Welfare Statistics 2011 conducted by the Centre and compiled by the Registrar General of India. The Sharia Act was passed in 1937 in undivided British India allowed child marriage based on consent from the girl’s guardian. This Act was amended in 1947 wherein minimum age for girls for marriage was fixed at 15 and then to 18 in 1978. India was divided in 1947 based on religion; hence Sharia Law stands null and void. Only one law should be applicable for all citizens of India irrespective of religion. Child marriage is rampant amongst all communities, particularly the poor. Poverty and lack of education are the key propellers. I am from the Tinsukia district of Assam. This region of Upper Assam has many tea gardens where majority of the tea-leaf pluckers and factory workers are from the Vanavasis/Adivasi community. Child marriage was prevalent amongst the Hindu and Christian Vanavasis/Adivasis of this region. Of late, such cases have seen a steep fall, all thanks to the spread of education. In the past, till around two decades ago, most of the Adivasi children dropped out of school by 6th or 7th standard. Most children did not go to school; their parents, who were unaware about the values of education, were never strict. Now it is a completely changed situation. I have seen majority at present studying till college level and the youth migrating to cities across the country for work. Alleviation of poverty and literacy do help in curbing the issue of child marriage – I have witnessed this reality around in my hometown.
If Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma has started the crackdown, he has also planned solutions for the consequences thereof resulting from arrests. He has directed respective district administration authorities to help affected women, especially those who face mental and economic distress. “Education, rehabilitation, counselling and the engagement of NGOs” are the next step.
Raising a voice against what is justified to stay in the limelight has been a time-tested strategy for many. But doing so, this selected fraternity is only justifying the social crime and evil practice. May sense prevail!