Open Letter to Assam CM: Cruelty in the Name of Child

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
13 Feb 2023
According to a UNICEF study, approximately, one in four young women in India was married before turning 18 years of age.

Dear Shri Himanta Biswa Sarma,

I know for a fact that neo-converts are more exuberant than converts. You have proved my point. You were a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman until 2015, when you joined the BJP. Thereafter, you have been trying to prove that you are more loyal to the King than the King himself. Alternatively, you could have been a loyalist, while still being a Congressman, as many are. They wait for an opportunity. 

Your latest campaign against child marriages has a secular connotation but you know very well who the victims of your campaign are. They are mostly Muslims and tribals. Please correct me if I am wrong. When you declare your intention to continue the campaign till the next Assembly election due in 2026, nobody has any doubt about what you want to achieve.

I saw the Government of India Calendar for 2023. Every page has a big photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a quotation attributed to him. One such quotation exhorts people to get rid of their colonial mindset. Your violent campaign against child marriages, alas, exemplifies the colonial mindset. You may wonder how.

Do you know that the first law fixing the age of marriage of girls at 14 and boys at 18 was passed by the Central Legislative Assembly in 1929? It is known as the Sharda Act. Many people think that a woman named Sharda had moved the Bill. 

No, it was moved by Harbilas Sharda, who was a member of Arya Samaj, founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883), which was gaining popularity in the North. The Bill was opposed mostly by the Orthodox Hindus. When the Bill was put to the vote, there was a tie, forcing a member nominated by the British to vote in its favour.

That is how the marriage age was fixed. The law was applicable only to the regions directly administered by the British like Malabar, now in Kerala, and not to princely states like Travancore, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Patiala, Gwalior and Kashmir.

Do you know why the Orthodox Hindus were opposed to the Bill? One of them was Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (1894-1994), the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, who was popularly known as Paramacharya. Arthur Koestler, author of the hugely-successful book Darkness at Noon, had interviewed him for his book The Lotus and the Robot. The book was banned as it contained some derogatory remarks about Mahatma Gandhi.

The Hungary-born author concludes his write on the Shankaracharya saying that he would have to go back several centuries to meet a sage of his stature in Christendom. I wrote an editorial on him in the Hindustan Times when he attained samadhi. I respected him for the bold stand he took to protect a mosque very close to his mutt at Kanchipuram when a mob surrounded it. Today, the mosque stands as a tribute to the sage’s sagacity. 

He was totally opposed to fixing the age of marriage at 14. You are welcome to read Paramacharya’s discourses, available in English also. Biologically speaking, a girl comes of age when she has her first monthly period. He quotes the Vedas and many other texts to argue that a girl can be married three or four years after she feels the need and is able to cover her nakedness with a piece of cloth. 

He argued that when the girl first felt the need for sex and her husband was able to satisfy her, she would look up to him as the pleasure-giver for life. While he lamented the fixing of the age of marriage, the Shankaracharya did not exhort his people to defy the law. 

The marriage age was raised for girls, first, to 15 and, then, to 18. For men, it is 21. There is a proposal to increase the marriage age of girls to 21 in the name of equality. There is opposition to the proposal from within the ranks of the BJP, as you know better than me.

Like many laws, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, is not strictly enforced in the country. During the ten-year period of 2011 to 2020, a total of 3,604 cases were registered under the PCM Act. As a result, one in three of the world’s child brides live in India.

According to a UNICEF study, approximately, one in four young women in India was married before turning 18 years of age. In absolute numbers, there are 650 million women alive who were married before they turned 18. 

There are many reasons for child marriages. What you have done is what no one has ever done. You have filed cases against men who were minors or whose wives were minors when they got married. 

You have arrested tens of hundreds of such men, depriving their wives and children of their only source of income. Is Assam the number one state in terms of child marriages? You have justified your decision by citing the report of the National Family Health Survey (NHFS)-V, which did not list Assam as the worst ‘offender’. West Bengal, Bihar and Tripura topped the state-wise list of child marriages with more than 40 percent of women aged 20-24 years having married when they were below 18. 

Six other states and Union Territories recorded figures higher than the national average – with two, Jharkhand and Assam having child marriage incidence rate higher than 30 percent (Assam notched 31.8 percent). I have taken these figures from an article done by journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyaya, who has been single-handedly monitoring the BJP and whose articles can be found at NewsClick.

He also makes the startling revelation that there are more minor bridegrooms in Uttar Pradesh than anywhere else in the country. Now, imagine what will happen if all the states start arresting people who married when they were minors. Will the jails have enough space to accommodate them? Who will look after their families?

I am sure you would have heard the saying ‘prevention is better than cure’. The government has a duty to ensure that laws are implemented. It was the duty of your government to see to it that child marriages did not happen in the state. The law that prohibits child marriages is a Central law. Did you frame the rules to enforce the law?

The law also stipulates appointment of officials, whose specific duty is to keep an eye on questionable marriages and prevent them. I have read a report wherein it is mentioned that you did not even know that there was a need to appoint such officers. Pardon me if you were wrongly quoted.

The police have the authority to intervene when violations of the law take place. Can you find out in how many instances the police took suo motu action and prevented child marriages? Who will atone for your lapses? I do not condone child marriages. They need to be stopped but why punish the boys and girls who were minors when they got married?

You have even used the Pocso law against men who have been leading a married life. Don’t you know that it is not proper to judge the past by the norms of the present. I had four siblings while you had six. Swami Vivekananda had nine. However, we have only two children each. Our parents did not live when the national norm was not “Hum Do, Hamare Do” (Two of us, two of ours)!

Gandhi was only 13 when he married Kasturba, who was 14. Do you know that Rabindranath Tagore was 22, when he married Mrinalini, who was only 9? Narendra Modi was only 18 when he married Jashodaben. It is a different matter that he abandoned her. Be that as it may, is it proper to use modern yardsticks to measure them? One should also understand why child marriages happen.

While proposing to increase the marriage age of girls to 21, Narendra Modi mentioned that girls need to study before they marry. Does your state have the infrastructure to keep all the boys and girls in schools and colleges till they reach the marriageable age?

I know that you were not satisfied with the schools in Assam and that is why you sent your son to Doon Public School, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, where Rajiv Gandhi was an alumnus and your daughter to the prestigious Mayo College Girls School at Ajmer in Rajasthan. Yes, you could afford to give them the best education. Is that the case with a majority of the Muslims in Assam who make a subsistence living?

I know that you closed down hundreds of madrassas after you became Chief Minister. I agree that madrassa education is not up to the mark. At the same time, some education is better than no education. It was to encourage Muslim children to study that the UPA government introduced a scholarship scheme that benefited all minority communities.

The Union government has virtually ended the scholarship scheme. Many of those who have enrolled in schools and colleges on the strength of the scholarships may find it difficult to continue their education. Is this not true about Assam too? 

As the men whom you arrested for marrying minors complete the trial and undergo imprisonment, who will look after their spouses and children during the interregnum? Do you have any plan up your sleeve to protect their interests? Or, alternatively, are you not bothered?

I am sure you know that most children want to study and be in the company of their peers. They don’t want to marry and become mothers when they should be playing with fellow children. Yet, why are they married off at a young age? There are many reasons for it.

Unfortunately, in the Indian context, an unmarried daughter is a “bother” for any parent. Even King Janaka is believed to have been bothered when the marriage of his daughter, who was the first to have a non-uterine birth, was delayed. If that is the case, one can imagine how it would affect a poor person. He is always worried about his daughter going astray or getting sexually assaulted. He knows that the threat also comes from his own male relatives. 

That is why he wants to marry her off, so that he is free from the bother of protecting her round-the-clock. Is it any wonder that child marriages happen? It will be cruel to increase the age of marriage to 21. If equality is what you want, then there is a case of reducing the age of marriage of boys to 18. 

True, the percentage of child marriages in Assam is higher than the national average. Now that you have instilled fear among the people, few will dare to have their children married for fear of sending the boys to jails. Is it not true that Assam is far behind many other states in terms of indices like literacy, public health, mortality of mothers and infants? 

Your party had always been campaigning that people from Bangladesh were swarming the state. Now you don’t make such charges because the whole world knows that on many social indices, Bangladesh is far ahead of not just Assam, but India. Why should a Bangladeshi aspire to come to India to lead a more miserable life?

Since you have nothing to show by way of progress, you want to polarise the voters on communal lines and win the next elections. That is why you say that your campaign against child marriages will continue till the next election. It is a cruel campaign. 

Assam knows the value of cut-off, a term used for decades when the Assam agitation was at its peak. You can declare that no cases would be registered against anyone with retrospective effect. You can strictly enforce the law from today onwards till eternity, not the next elections. Otherwise, your action will smack of vindictiveness that borders on sectarianism.

Yours etc.

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