Gauhati HC raps Assam government on child marriage crackdown

NEW DELHI: Granting bail to 9 men who had been arrested in child marriage cases, the Gauhati High Court came down heavily on the Assam government on its child marriage crackdown saying that the allegations appeared 'weird' and slapping of charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) was unwarranted and unjustified. 

Hearing the bail petitions Justice Suman Shyam used very harsh words saying that these arrests were causing havoc in the private lives of citizens and affecting family members including old people. The judge also said that the said arrests were a bad idea and that the state should proceed as per law. 

Declining the (police) state's request for custody, the judge also observed that these were not cases needing custodial interrogation further saying that if the state found somebody guilty then they should file a chargesheet and bring them to trial.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced on January 23 that the state government will launch a statewide drive against child marriage and book men who have married girls below 14 years of age under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and those marrying girls aged 14-18 under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.

Subsequently, the police launched a crackdown and over 4000 FIRs were registered across the state leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people which also included priests who officiated these weddings. Although people from all religions have been arrested, however, most of those arrested are from districts with higher Muslim populations.

This sparked statewide protests from women, those affected by the actions, social activists and opposition parties who termed it as an overreach by the law and administration. 

Several legal experts have over the days into the crackdown pointed out that the provision of POCSO was essentially to safeguard children from sexual exploitation and is not valid in cases of marriage taking place in violation of Law. Many of them opined that the police may have decided to slap POSCO charges since it was difficult to obtain bail under them. 

Experts also point out a conflict in the law regarding the age of marriage of Indian girls, in a sense that while the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act prohibits marriages of women below the age of 18, special laws like under the Muslim personal law in India, girls are seemingly permitted to get married on reaching puberty. 

In today's hearing, Judge Shyam also made a similar reference saying that the police can add anything but why was POCSO slapped in this case? He observed, "Merely because POCSO is added, does it mean judges will not see what is there?"

According to the state government, the action was a measure to remedy the state’s poor health metric. Sarma referred to the data published by the Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) portal, which states that nearly 17 per cent of over 6.2 lakh pregnant women in Assam last year were teenagers. He had very specifically announced that this drive would continue till the 2026 Assembly polls.


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