Just a fortnight ago, Chandni Khatoon, a 20-year-old woman in Assam’s Baksa district became a mother to a girl child. A sense of unparalleled mirth and excitement consumed the household — comprising her, her 23-year-old husband Tabrez Alam, and her in-laws. This was until the night of Friday, 3 February, when Tabrez and her father-in-law were arrested by the local police. The arrest was part of the ‘crackdown’ by the Assam government against those involved in child marriage. Chandni got married in 2020, when she wasn’t 18 yet.
Now with the two only earning members of the family arrested, Chandni is struggling to take care of the child. “We have no savings. The two (husband and father-in-law) used to sell vegetables every day and get money home. I don’t know how we will survive with them gone,” Chandni told The Quint on Monday, three days after the arrest.
As outrage and protests against the arrest gained momentum over the weekend, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma said he has “zero sympathy”. “After a young girl is married...I will have to call it rape...have we thought of the suffering the girl goes through? In order to save lakhs of girls from this situation in the future, one generation will have to suffer,” he said.
But Chandni insists that she has had a “beautiful” married life with Tabrez. “I love my husband very much. He has never treated me badly, doesn’t misbehave or force me to do anything. He would often buy sweets for me and bring them home in the evening, because I like them. We have been very happy in the marriage,” she said. Originally from Bihar’s Motihari, Chandni is the eldest of 6 siblings, four of whom are girls. “My father is a low-income laborer, he has struggled to bring us all up. After marriage, my financial condition improved significantly.”
Like Chandni, thousands of other women across the state of Assam have had their lives turned upside down with their husbands, or parents, or in-laws arrested by the police over the weekend. This is a consequence of the Assam government cabinet’s decision on 23 January, giving a nod to the police to initiate mass arrests against those who were involved in acts of child marriage.
The CM said has that those who married girls under 14 will be charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, while those who married teenage girls between 14 and 18 years will be charged under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006.
From Husband to Father to Father-in-law, No One Spared
As of Monday, a total of 2,441 people had been arrested in Assam so far, as part of this ‘crackdown’, CM Biswa tweeted.
Earlier, in a press conference, the Assam Director General of Police (DGP) G.P. Singh said that among the arrested individuals, 52 are priests and qazis involved in child marriages. "Maximum arrests have been made in Dhubri, Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Biswanath districts," he said.
26-year-old Sweety Namasudra, a resident of Karimganj district said that she lost her 2-month-old child while running from pillar to post to get her father-in-law released from jail on Friday.
According to her, police came to arrest her husband Ashish Namasudra (33) on Friday but in his absence, they arrested her father-in-law Digendra Namasudra (62).
"My father-in-law is struggling with severe health issues and in the absence of my husband, I rushed to Ratabari police station with documents. After examining the documents, police released him in the late evening," she said.
According to Sweety, her 2-month-old child was with her all the day when she was trying to secure bail for her father-in-law, because there was no one at home who she could have left him with. After returning home she realised that he is suffering from a fever.
"We tried the homemade techniques but he was not responding. We rushed to a local hospital on Friday midnight where the doctors declared him dead," Sweety told The Quint.
In Baksa, 21-year-old Sajida, who has a diploma in Arabic, got married over four years ago to an imam at a local mosque. On Friday night, the police came looking for her husband, but since has been away for Tablighi Jamaat work, they asked to see father-in-law. When they learnt that the father-in-law passed away years ago, they went to her parents' home instead, she says.
“They arrested my abbu (father). They are making it seem like he pressurised me into the marriage. But it’s not true. I have a diploma in Arabic, I am not illiterate. My husband is a religious, well-read man, and so I agreed to get married to him,” Sajida, who has an 8-month-old child, told The Quint.
Suicide and Fears
There have also been reports of a suicide in Assam's South-Salamara Mancachar district by a widow, who was a mother of two, and feared that her parents will be arrested by the police.
Then, on Saturday, a 16-year-old died by suicide in Cachar District’s Dholai. She was in love with a 21-year-old man, and was about to get married soon, said her mother.
Speaking to The Quint, her mother 45-year-old Alimun Nissa said that she and her husband had agreed to the marriage because their daughter was determined, and had threatened to elope if the family disagreed. This was weeks prior to the Assam government’s decision to initiate a mass crackdown on child marriages.
But on Friday, when the daughter read about the arrests taking place, she panicked.
"She read the news on social media and it disturbed her completely. She told me that now she cannot even elope with her boyfriend and get married, as they would arrest him then,” Alimun Nissa told The Quint.
Alimun Nissa said that her daughter dressed like a bride on Friday, clicked some pictures and asked the family members to save the photographs “for the future”. The next afternoon, at around 3 pm on Saturday, locals informed the family that their daughter’s body hanging by a tree has been found.
"This act of crackdown has killed my daughter. I am afraid, it'll kill many more young boys and girls. It may sound wrong, but it'll take more lives,” Alimun Nissa said.
However, the superintendent of police of Cachar district, Numal Mahatta claimed that this suicide is not related to the drive against child marriage.
"There must be some other personal reasons behind the death. The dead body has been sent for postmortem," Mahatta told The Quint.
'Penal Action Won't Solve Social Issue': Experts
Child marriage is rampant in Assam. According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) carried out between 2019 and 2020, 31.8 per cent of women aged between 20-24 years in Assam, were married before the legal age of 18 years, which is higher than the national figure of 23.3 per cent. The state also has a high infant and maternal mortality rate. CM Sarma cited these figures as the reason for initiating the spate of arrests.
However, experts disagree that penal action of this sort, implemented retrospectively, can be a solution to curb child marriage.
“Penal action is never a solution for a deep-rooted social problem,” says Enakshi Ganguly, founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights.
“Curbing child marriage requires us to implement a variety of other measures. Governments have to ensure that girls have access to schooling, that they are safe in schools, that there are enough opportunities of economic fulfilment for these girls so that they can develop their own agency and decision-making abilities. None of this can be solved with penal action that retrospectively criminalises child marriages,” Ganguly told The Quint.
Taison Ahmed, activist and general secretary of All BTC Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) said that several activists groups have been working on ground for years to end the menace of child marriage. “But it isn’t easy because most remote areas in Assam don’t have schools for several kilometers at a stretch. Many areas don’t have any higher schooling or college options. As a result, girls drop out before completing their education and that creates the vicious cycle of them being married off before the legal age. Now arresting their family members will only make the matters worse for them,” Ahmed told The Quint.
Moreover, child marriage isn't particular to Assam. According to the 2022 demographic sample survey conducted by the Union Home Ministry, Jharkhand and West Bengal have the highest percentage of child marriages in the country, more than any other state.