Assam, India – As Saidul Islam stares at rows of wilted cauliflowers and cabbages, the 33-year-old is unable to decide what is more frightening – his dying crop or weeks of imprisonment.
The patch of land where Islam grows his vegetables was not watered for two weeks while the vegetable grower from Assam’s Dalgaon village, about 100km from state capital Dispur, was bundled into jail on charges of marrying an underage girl seven years ago. His bride was then 15.
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On February 3, the police in Assam – ruled by the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – went on an arrest spree as part of a mass crackdown against 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 imprisoned in makeshift jails.
More than two weeks later, the number of arrested people stands at more than 3,000, including 93 women.
‘We were a happy couple’
Islam was one of them. He told Al Jazeera he managed to secure bail after spending two weeks in jail. “I engaged one lawyer and spent a lot of money to get bail. I was already poor, now I am poorer,” he said, adding that over that fortnight, his health deteriorated drastically. “I have become very weak and so has my wife.”
On Saturday when Al Jazeera visited Islam’s house, his wife, Noorjahan Nissa, fainted because of “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 agricultural field – his sole source of income. “My crops have been destroyed. I had worked so hard growing them. I wonder how I will survive now.”
Assam has registered more than 4,200 cases – with 6,707 people accused – under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in cases where a girl below 14 was married. For those married between the ages of 14-18, it has invoked the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
In Islam’s village, 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 are working outside the state.
‘To harass Muslims’
Shahjimina Khatoon, who claims she was 18 when she married 18 months ago, said the police arrested her father-in-law. With a toddler in hand, Khatoon is clueless as to when he will return home. Her husband works as a daily wage earner in Karnataka.
Khatoon alleges her father-in-law was arrested because they are Muslim. “I think the arrests related to child marriage are to harass Muslim people.”
In Khatoon’s neighbourhood, Abroan Nissa, 19, is waiting for the return of five of her arrested family members: her husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and one more relative. She is alone at home with her child. “I don’t know how I’ll feed my child. The earning members – my husband and my father-in-law – are in jail. I want justice,” Nissa told Al Jazeera.
The police in Assam retrospectively booked people who allegedly participated in child marriage in the past seven years. However, according to Section 468 of the Criminal Procedure Code, if the punishment under law is between 1-3 years, then a court of law cannot consider cases older than three years. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, the maximum punishment is two years. However, if the government is invoking POCSO, there is no such limitation as the minimum punishment under the law is 10 years.
Legal experts in Assam told Al Jazeera that cases like Islam’s have no legal basis as he married seven years ago. Since he has been booked under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, experts say a court cannot consider it.
Moreover, they say the name of the law itself suggests the state should have banned child marriages. 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 petitioners here are not the hitherto child brides. The state is destroying married lives of people 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 step by Assam chief minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma say it is “anti-poor and anti-minority as most of the arrested people belong to the Muslim community”.
As per the government data, Assam has the highest percentage of Muslims after Indian-administered Kashmir, with Muslims comprising 34 percent of the northeastern state’s 31 million people. At least nine of the state’s 31 districts’ populations are more than 50 percent Muslim.
Bengali-speaking Muslims comprise the bulk of the Muslim population in the state.
In Assam, the socio-political narrative for a long time has been centred around the issue of “illegal immigrants” from neighbouring Bangladesh. The Assamese nationalists maintain that the state’s “land and culture are under threat” because of “continuous illegal migration from Bangladesh”.
“The politics played with the lives of Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are mostly poor, every now and then should end. As the BJP is in power in Assam since 2016, they should take necessary action to stop the entry of ‘illegal’ migrants instead of crying foul over the issue,” Hasina Ahmed, secretary of the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU), told Al Jazeera.
Suicides over the arrests
As the men – most sole breadwinners of their families – were taken away by police, images of anguished wives and mothers beating their chests and pleading for their release outside police stations went viral on social media.
Defending the police action, Prasanta Kumar Bhuyan, inspector general of police (law and order) and spokesman for Assam police, told Al Jazeera, “We are only following the law. There is nothing illegal about the arrests, which are currently under way. As far as criticism is concerned, people have the right to do so as we are a democratic country.”
Bhuyan added that investigations are on and in a month, chargesheets will be filed in all the cases.
Assam reported at least four suicides in connection with the statewide drive against child marriage. The deceased include a widow from South Salmara-Mankachar district. She took her life fearing the arrest of her parents as she was a child bride. In the Karbi Anglong district, a woman died by suicide after her son was arrested during the crackdown.
Wadud, who is representing some of the arrested people in the Guwahati High Court, told Al Jazeera the government should undoubtedly eradicate the “social evil” and society should play a part in the process. However, he questioned the intention of the state government, controlled by the BJP.
“What was the government doing all this while to address the age-old problem? I believe the government has miserably failed to implement the Prohibition of the Child Marriage Act 2006. Since the government has woken up now, however, are (mass arrests) the way to go forward? They should follow due process,” he said.
“In an attempt to implement the legislation, they are invoking the POCSO Act. The Act is to give justice to minor victims of sexual abuse. How do they know there is sexual abuse in all these marriages, especially when the women have been pleading to get their husbands back?”
On February 14, while granting anticipatory bail to nine people charged under the POCSO Act, the Gauhati High Court heavily criticised the mass arrests, saying the crackdown was “causing havoc in the private lives of people”.
But despite criticism of the government’s “ill-thought-out and inhumane campaign” to prevent the marriages of minors, Chief Minister Sarma said he was “committed to ending the evil practice”. He also said the arrests included the accused and perpetrators of the crime and denied any prior religious profiling was undertaken by the government.
Sarma’s critics disagree, saying the right-wing party since it first came to power in Assam in 2016 has used its laws and policies to target Muslims.
“There is a pattern to the whole process of being anti-Muslim. People are not fools. Right from the National Register of Citizens (a list of Indian citizens in Assam), evictions of Bengali-speaking Muslims, encounter killings, to current mass arrests, the BJP government has been targeting 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 arrested people 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 sizeable Muslim population. Why doesn’t he open more schools, colleges and universities in these districts as development measures?” Ahmed asked.
About 32 percent of women in Assam marry before they attain adulthood, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS).
Statistics also show that education and health facilities are mostly inaccessible to women and girls of Assam. According to the latest NFHS, only 29.6 percent of women in the state aged 15-49 years have 10 or more years of schooling. Since females do not have access to higher education, their participation in the job market is also low.
Likewise, Assam’s maternal mortality ratio is also the highest in the country. According to the Registrar General of India’s latest report on maternal mortality for 2018-2020, the state recorded 195 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Arman Ali, executive director of New Delhi-based National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, who has worked with a non-profit 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 age-old traditions are behind the social evil. Instead of addressing the main issues of empowering girls and women by providing them education, health facilities and job opportunities, the government is marginalising the already marginalised and making criminals out of men and punishing them,” Ali told Al Jazeera.