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Did Assam CM Really Need To Repeal Muslim Marriage Act To Curb Child Marriages?

By repealing this Act, all Muslim marriages have to be registered under the Special Marriage Act, 1954.

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On the last day of the budget session of the state Assembly this week, as Opposition legislators demanded a discussion on the Assam Cabinet's decision to repeal the Assam Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act, 1935, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma launched into a fiery diatribe. Sarma said he will not allow the marriage of five or six-year-old children.

Then, suddenly shifting to Hindi in an Assembly where the proceedings are generally in Assamese, a visibly enraged Sarma continued, “Aap log sun lijiyeAssam mein child marriage nahi hone dunga jab tak mein zinda hun. (Listen…in Assam, I will not allow child marriage to happen as long as I am alive.)”

Waving his finger and speaking alternatively in Assamese and Hindi, Sarma berated the Opposition that he would not allow them to “do business with the children of Muslim society” and that before 2026, he would shut down this “dukan (shop)”.

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Why the Move Raises More Doubts

According to the Assam government, it has decided to repeal the Act for two reasons. Firstly, to inch closer to the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code in the state. Secondly, and more importantly, to take a “significant step” towards curbing the menace of child marriages in Assam – it was this line of argument that Sarma took in the Assembly.

Notably, the repeal of the Act comes in the backdrop of his government’s punitive, retroactive crackdown on child marriage last year that led to the arrests of thousands.

Even as the questions on the pros and cons of implementation of UCC remain, the claim that repealing this Act will be effective in preventing child marriages in the state is contested. 

The Act essentially outlines the steps for registration of Muslim marriages and divorces. As per the Act, Muslim registrars authorised by the state had the authority to register marriages and divorces of Muslims.

Currently, 94 such registrars were functioning in the state. With the repeal of this Act, all Muslim marriages have to be registered under the Special Marriage Act, 1954.

To justify its decision to withdraw the law, the Assam government has cited Section 8(1) of the Act that allows the registration of marriages involving minors, provided their guardians apply for the same on their behalf.

Without giving out any specific numbers, the state government has claimed that through the powers vested in this section of the Act, several unauthorised qazis were registering marriages of men below 21 and girls below 18 years of age – further arguing that repealing this Act will prevent alleged rampant underage marriages amongst Muslims.

However, several Muslim lawyers in Assam have contended that if the state government’s sole intention was to curb child marriage then the specific section of the Act could have been amended rather than a total repeal of the Act itself.

Furthermore, it has been argued that the provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, already nullify the previously mentioned Section 8(1) of the said Act.

Does More Harm Than Good for Local, Marginalised Muslims

Repealing this Act means that Muslim marriages must now be registered by the district's marriage registration officer, who may not be familiar with Islamic customs and practices.

This is in contrast to having a Muslim registrar, who is typically well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence and customs and is authorised by the state, register Muslim marriages – an arguably balanced position that Muslim lawyers and community activists say, often ensures accountability, especially in rural Muslim belts marred by illiteracy and poverty.

In such areas, they say, not being able to register their marriages through the familiar, local Muslim registrar might lead to a lack of registration altogether because marginalised people from these areas often struggle to navigate the relatively complex and paperwork-heavy bureaucratic process of registration under the Special Marriage Act.  

In Assam, more than a third of the population is Muslim, with the large majority being Bengali-origin Muslims. Unlike Assamese Muslims – comprising five sub-groups – who have been accorded ‘indigenous’ status by the Sarma-led state government, Muslims of Bengali descent are routinely vilified in the state’s socio-political landscape.

The community, which has a history of migration from present-day Bangladesh that dates back more than a century, is economically, educationally, and socially marginalised.

The community regularly finds itself in the crosshairs of Sarma’s political rhetoric.

Since coming to power in 2021, the Assan government has evicted over 4,000 families, a vast majority of whom belong to the Bengali-origin Muslim community.

Additionally, on the question of settlement of land for cultivators under a flagship scheme, Sarma had announced that Bengali-origin Muslims cannot apply for land under this scheme since they are not ‘indigenous.'

Moreover, the Assam government has converted over 1,200 madrasas into regular schools.

Even the recent delimitation exercise in Assam – backed by Sarma as a protective measure for the interests of ‘indigenous’ Assamese communities – has drawn flak from the Opposition for allegedly being “communal” and reducing Muslim representation.

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What the Crackdown on Child Marriages Revealed

Sarma is arguably the most important political leader of the country's northeast region, and his influence is ever-increasing beyond the region too.

The chief minister's media interviews often promoting a hardliner Hindu stance routinely grab national headlines.

In such a political landscape, the Assam government's supposedly progressive actions, such as the repeal of the 1935 Act, crackdown on child marriage or the proposal to ban polygamy, raise questions about their actual intent: Are these decisions meant to empower Muslim women and children, or are they merely political manoeuvres intended to further demonise and harass Muslims? 

Consider this: Among the 3,000-odd persons arrested in the first round of the Assam government's crackdown on child marriages, over 62 percent were Muslims, a data analysis by The Indian Express found.

The state government justified the crackdown as necessary to combat the ill effects of underage marriage, contributing to high teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality rates in Assam.

But these arrests have torn families apart. Hundreds of women, kids in arms, protested outside police stations over the arrests of their husbands and relatives.

Women's studies researcher Mary E John has written that the crackdown against child marriage in Assam is driven by political interest rather than genuine concern for women.

Assam's minority underage marriage rate is much higher than the national average (45.8 percent in contrast to 26.4 percent), and John attributes poverty as one the primary reasons behind the disparity.

Moreover, she argues that mere punitive measures would not empower women or prevent underage marriage but rather increase the vulnerability of already marginalised women.  

The Assam government’s approach towards curbing child marriage raises questions as to whether, say, the bureaucratic changes arising from the repeal of the 1935 Act or the subsequent legal actions following the proposed ban on polygamy might end up as yet another set of sticks to beat Muslims with.

Sarma's dramatic outburst in the Assembly that day might have served his political posturing, but it's unlikely to allay fears or substantially address the core issues.  

(Abhishek Saha is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. He is also the author of 'No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis'. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.) 

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