Assam, India – While Saidul Islam stares at rows of withered cauliflower and cabbage, the 33-year-old cannot decide which is more frightening – his dying crop or weeks in prison.
The plot where Islam grows his vegetables was not irrigated for two weeks while the vegetable grower from Assam’s Dalgaon village, about 100 km from the state capital Dispur, was jailed on charges of marrying a minor girl seven years ago. His bride was then 15.
On February 3, police in Assam – ruled by the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – made an arrest as part of a massive crackdown on child marriage. Within 24 hours, more than 2,000 people, including grooms, their family members and religious leaders allegedly involved in underage marriages of girls, were jailed in makeshift jails.
More than two weeks later, the number of people arrested is over 3,000, including 93 women.
“We were a happy couple”
Islam was one of them. He told Al Jazeera he was able to secure bail after spending two weeks in jail. “I engaged a lawyer and spent a lot of money to get bail. I was already poor, now I am poorer,” he said, adding that during the fortnight his health deteriorated drastically. “I have become very weak and so has my wife.”
On Saturday when Al Jazeera visited the House of Islam, his wife, Noorjahan Nissa, fainted due to “weakness”. She recovered after a while.
“We were a happy couple, but my arrest has had a devastating effect on her,” Islam said.
Since his release, Islam has been constantly staring at his farmland – his only source of income. “My crops have been destroyed. I had worked so hard to grow them. I wonder how I’m going to survive now.”
Assam has registered more than 4,200 cases – with 6,707 people accused – under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act in cases where a girl below the age of 14 was married. For those who are married between the ages of 14-18, it has invoked the Child Marriage Prohibition Act, 2006.
In the village of Islam, Al Jazeera found that police had arrested people from at least 15 homes. Most of those arrested are fathers-in-law of the women as their husbands work outside the state.
Shahjimina Khatoon, who claims she was 18 when she got married 18 months ago, said police arrested her father-in-law. With a toddler in hand, Khatoon does not know when he will return home. Her husband works as a daily wage earner in Karnataka.
Khatoon claims her father-in-law was arrested because they are Muslims. “I think the arrests related to child marriage are to harass Muslim people.”
In Khatoon’s neighborhood, Abroan Nissa, 19, waits for the return of five of her arrested family members: her husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and one other relative. She is alone at home with her child. “I don’t know how to feed my child. The earning members – my husband and my father-in-law – are in prison. I want justice, Nissa told Al Jazeera.
The police in Assam have subsequently reported people who are said to have participated in child marriage in the past seven years. However, according to Section 468 of the Criminal Procedure Act, if the sentence according to the law is between 1-3 years, a court cannot consider cases older than three years. According to the Child Marriage Prohibition Act from 2006, the maximum penalty is two years. However, if the government invokes POCSO, there is no such limitation as the minimum sentence under the Act is 10 years.
Legal experts in Assam told Al Jazeera that matters such as Islam have no legal basis when he got married seven years ago. Since he has been booked under the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, experts say a court cannot consider it.
Moreover, they say that the name of the law itself suggests that the state should have banned child marriage. In Assam the state acted after the marriages had taken place and in many cases after many years.
“These are old cases where the marriages have already been consummated. Most of the child brides are now adults. The suitors here are not the hitherto child brides. The state is destroying people’s marital lives and further burdening women and girls already burdened by child marriage, Guwahati-based human rights lawyer Aman Wadud told Al Jazeera.
Along with the unprecedented large-scale arrests of people to prevent child marriage, critics of the latest move by Assam Chief Minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma say it is “anti-poor and anti-minority as most of those arrested belong to Muslim community” .
According to government data, Assam has the highest percentage of Muslims after Indian-administered Kashmir, with Muslims making up 34 percent of the northeastern state’s 31 million people. At least nine of the state’s 31 districts’ population is more than 50 percent Muslim.
Bengali-speaking Muslims form the bulk of the Muslim population in the state.
In Assam, the socio-political narrative has for a long time centered around the issue of “illegal immigrants” from neighboring Bangladesh. The Assamese nationalists claim that the state’s “land and culture are under threat” due to “continuous illegal migration from Bangladesh”.
“Politics playing with the lives of Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are mostly poor, should stop now and then. As BJP is in power in Assam since 2016, they should take necessary steps to stop the entry of ‘illegal’ migrants instead of crying upset about the case,” Hasina Ahmed, secretary of the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU), told Al Jazeera.
Suicide after the arrests
As the men – most of them sole breadwinners of their families – were taken away by police, images of distraught wives and mothers beating their chests and pleading for release outside police stations went viral on social media.
Defending the police action, Prasanta Kumar Bhuyan, inspector general of police (law and order) and Assam police spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “We are only following the law. There is nothing illegal about the arrests, which are currently ongoing. As for criticism, people have the right to do so as we are a democratic country.”
Bhuyan added that the investigation is underway and in a month, charges will be filed in all the cases.
Assam reported at least four suicides in connection with the state campaign against child marriage. The deceased include a widow from South Salmara-Mankachar district. She took her life in fear of the arrest of her parents, when she was a child bride. In Karbi Anglong district, a woman died by suicide after her son was arrested during the attack.
Wadud, who represents some of the arrested persons in the Guwahati High Court, told Al Jazeera that the government should undoubtedly eradicate the “social evil” and society should play a role in the process. However, he questioned the intention of the BJP-controlled state government.
“What did the government do all this to solve the age-old problem? I believe the government has failed to implement the ban on child marriage act 2006. Since the government has woken up now, is (mass arrests) the way forward? They should follow due process, he said.
“In an attempt to implement the legislation, they are invoking the POCSO Act. The Act is supposed to give rights to minor victims of sexual abuse. How do they know that there is sexual abuse in all these marriages, especially when the women have asked to get the husband back? »
On February 14, while granting anticipatory bail to nine people charged under the POCSO Act, the Gauhati High Court strongly criticized the mass arrests, saying the crackdown “wreaked havoc on the privacy of people”.
But despite criticism of the government’s “ill-conceived and inhumane campaign” to prevent under-age marriages, Chief Minister Sarma said he was “committed to ending the evil practice”. He also said the arrests included the accused and the perpetrators of the crime, denying that any previous religious profiling was carried out by the government.
Sarma’s critics disagree, saying that since the right-wing party first came to power in Assam in 2016, it has used its laws and policies to target Muslims.
“There is a pattern to the whole process of being anti-Muslim. People are not idiots. Right from the National Register of Citizens (a list of Indian citizens in Assam), evictions of Bengali-speaking Muslims, encounter killings, to the current mass arrests, the BJP government has targeted the Muslims in Assam,” a political observer told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity.
“Why don’t they open more schools?”
AAMSU secretary Ahmed told Al Jazeera that while the people arrested in child marriage cases belong to all communities and religions, including the indigenous people known as the tribals, most of them are Muslims.
– Chief Minister Sarma always talks about Barpeta, Dhubri and Goalpara, where there is a significant Muslim population. Why doesn’t he open more schools, colleges and universities in these districts as a development initiative?” Ahmed asked.
About 32 percent of women in Assam marry before reaching adulthood, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS).
Statistics also show that educational and health facilities are largely inaccessible to women and girls in Assam. According to the latest NFHS, only 29.6 per cent of women in the state aged 15-49 have 10 or more years of schooling. Since women do not have access to higher education, their participation in the labor market is also low.
Similarly, Assam’s maternal mortality rate is also the highest in the country. According to the Registrar General of India’s latest maternal mortality report for 2018-2020, the state recorded 195 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Arman Ali, executive director of the New Delhi-based National Center for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, which has worked with a non-profit organization for children with disabilities in Assam, says the mass arrests showed a “very myopic view” of tackling child marriage.
“Child marriage does not happen in isolation. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of awareness and ancient traditions are behind the social evil. “Instead of addressing the main issues of empowering girls and women by providing them with education, health facilities and job opportunities, the government is marginalizing the already marginalized and making criminals out of men and punishing them,” Ali told Al Jazeera.