Assam: India child brides desperate after mass arrests

Momina Khatun is convinced she is cursed.

She’s one of hundreds of women in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam who married under the age of 18 – and are now stuck in limbo after their husbands were arrested in a crackdown on child marriage.

The state government claims it wants to eradicate the illegal practice, but Ms Khatun and other women whose husbands are in custody say they have been left helpless.

Ms Khatun, who is expecting a baby, didn’t have an easy start in life, but marriage turned out better than she expected.

Her father remarried when she was eight. A few months later her mother abandoned her too, leaving her to live with her paternal aunt in a tiny village in the state.

« Life was difficult there. I was treated like I was a burden to her family, » Ms Khatun said. Last year, when her aunt’s family decided to get her married at the age of 17, she was delirious with fear.

« We were always told that the man we marry will determine the quality of our life. I was young and worried what would happen if my husband was a bad person. »

But Yakub Ali, the farmer she married, turned out to be a kind man who took away the « loneliness and replaced it with genuine love and affection », Ms Khatun said.

« There wasn’t much, we were poor. At least there was peace. »

But their happiness was short-lived.

On 4 February, Mr Ali was arrested from their home and charged with marrying Ms Khatun when she was a minor.

A week on, the 22-year-old remains in custody. Ms Khatun, who is seven months pregnant, has not been able to meet her husband since his arrest.

« Where do I go? I have no one. My child and I will die hungry and lonely, » she said.

Ms Khatun and hundreds of other women in Assam have been protesting after their male relatives were arrested in connection with cases of child marriage.

More than 8,100 people have been named in police complaints so far, including the parents of grooms and priests who performed the marriage ceremonies. It was not immediately clear how the police arrived at the figures – the BBC has contacted officials for comment – but at least 2,500 people have been arrested since last week.

Women like Ms Khatun see the action as a « cruel interference in their lives ».

Mostly uneducated and poor, they say the arrested men are primary breadwinners for their families and that they depend on them to survive. Videos of women, wailing outside police stations and rolling on the ground, have cascaded over social media, fuelling feelings of anger and outrage.

Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages, during Assam government's state-wide crackdown on child marriages, react after police baton charge to control to protesting relatives outside Mayong police station in Morigaon district of Assam on February 4, 2023.
Image caption,Distressing pictures of women wailing and begging in front of police stations have emerged from Assam

Those like Mr Ali, who are accused of marrying girls aged 14-18, are being charged under a law that bans child marriage and carries a sentence of two years and a fine.

Men accused of marrying girls below 14 have been charged under a more stringent law that protects children from sexual offences, a non-bailable felony carrying jail terms ranging from seven years to life.

Reports say that districts with higher Muslim populations in Assam have seen more arrests than others, though hundreds of Hindu men have also been arrested.

Under Muslim personal law in India, girls can get married once they reach puberty. The conflict between this and India’s Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, which bars all marriages of women below the age of 18, is being challenged in the Supreme Court. »There is a line of precedent that special laws will override general personal laws of any religion, » according to Dr Arghya Sengupta, research director of Vidhi Legal, a think-thank.

But he added that « the unjustness of the situation » also needs to be factored in. « The personal law of Muslims has allowed girls who have attained puberty to marry of their own free will for decades. So to suddenly throw their husbands in jail for a practice which, in their eyes, was never wrong may be unjust. »

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma maintains that his government is at « war » against child marriage and isn’t targeting any one community. But critics say the retrospective arrests are the latest attempt of the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to marginalise minorities, especially Bengali-speaking Muslims.

The community, which migrated from what was once East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, has long faced discrimination in the multi-ethnic state, where linguistic identity and citizenship are the biggest political fault lines.

The Hindu-nationalist BJP government, which is also in power nationally, has announced a slew of policies, including a controversial citizenship law, that critics say discriminates particularly against Bengali-speaking Muslims.

Experts say the arrests could push illegal marriages underground, making them harder to report.

« Child marriages are more a social malaise than a religious one, and are rooted in poverty and patriarchy, » says Dr Abdul Azad, lecturer and researcher at Vrije University, Amsterdam.

« It is only through social and economic upliftment of communities that the practice can be truly eradicated – not by explicitly targeting a single community. »

Relatives of people arrested by police for being allegedly involved in child marriages, during Assam government's state-wide crackdown on child marriages, react after police baton charge to control to protesting relatives outside Mayong police station in Morigaon district of Assam on February 4, 2023.
Image caption,In some districts, women clashed with the police

Although illegal, child marriage is widespread in many parts of India mainly due to patriarchal customs, lack of education and poverty.

Very few cases are actually reported. In Assam, only 155 cases of child marriage were registered in 2021, and 138 in 2020, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

The latest crackdown started on 23 January, when Mr Sarma expressed alarm over the soaring underage pregnancy rate in Assam and promised to put an end to the problem.

The sudden nature of the move has shattered many families.

Khalidul Rashid, a resident of Dhubri district in Assam, breaks down before he even begins speaking.

He says his 23-year-old daughter Kulsoom Khan took her own life on 4 February. The eldest of four, Kulsoom was married off when she was 14. In 2020, when her husband died of Covid-19, she moved back to her parent’s home with her two children.

Everything was fine in her life, her father says, but when she heard last week about the arrests, she became vey tense.

On Friday, she asked her father for her marriage certificate. « I told her that her husband was dead and she had nothing to worry about, » Mr Rashid says.

But Kulsoom was afraid the police would arrest her parents.

« So she took her life – to protect us, » Mr Rashid says.

Dr Kalam says that while most of the child marriages in Assam occur among the marginalised communities, a powerful social movement against the practice has taken shape in recent years.

Now the government’s « aggressive approach », he says, will weaken this movement.

« Our society has become so divided that such brutal actions are gaining support, » Dr Kalam says.

Kulsoom and her two children and husband
Image caption,Kulsoom (right) lost her husband to Covid in 2020

Masud Zaman, a lawyer based in Dhubri district who is fighting on behalf of eight women protesters, agrees with the assessment.

A Muslim-dominated area, Dhubri has recorded the highest number of arrests.

« The common perception is that child marriage is a problem of Muslim society. But child marriage rates are high in Dhubri because it’s one of the poorest districts of Assam, where most families are illiterate. Not because Muslims live here, » Mr Zaman says.

He accused the government of turning a social issue into a communal one, at the expense of women’s lives.

While both Hindu and Muslim men have been rounded up in the recent arrests, the lawyer alleges there has been selective treatment in the way bail is being given.

« In Majuli – which is predominantly home to tribal communities – 24 men got bail within a day. We argued on behalf of [Muslim] men accused of the same offences on the same grounds, but couldn’t get bail. »

The BBC saw a copy of one of the bail orders passed by a district court in Majuli, which states the arrests had been made on « vague and insufficient grounds ».

Mr Zaman added that it was insensitive to think money – the government has announced financial compensation for the affected women – could alleviate their grief.

« What about the emotional bond between a wife and her husband? How will the government compensate women for that? »

It’s a question that haunts Ms Khatun.

« Does suffering ever end in a woman’s life? » she says.

World Opinions – BBC News

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