Days after the Gauhati High Court observed that the crackdown on child marriages in Assam created "havoc in the private life of people", a cross-section of society on Sunday appealed to the state government to look at it from a humane angle and focus more on creating awareness to end the social evil.
With the Himanta Biswa Sarma -led government stating that the ongoing drive against child marriages will be intensified, the opposition termed the exercise as a "political stunt" with a "communal design".
Besides observing that there was no need for custodial interrogation of the accused in child marriage cases, the Gauhati High Court on February 14 also rapped the Assam government for slapping stringent laws like the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) and rape charges on child marriage accused, and stated that these are "absolutely weird" allegations
The state government started its crackdown on child marriage on February 3. Over 3,000 people allegedly linked with child marriages have been arrested so far and lodged in temporary jails.
"The court is absolutely right that arrest is not mandatory in child marriage cases. Filing of a charge sheet timely and creating awareness are two prime actions that will act as deterrents in future," senior advocate Angshuman Bora told PTI.
He also asserted that slapping of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) and rape charges is not required in child marriage cases.
The state cabinet recently approved a proposal to book men who have married girls below 14 years of age under the POCSO Act, 2012.
Cases under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 will be registered against those who have married girls in the age group of 14-18, the cabinet had decided.
Social scientist Pallavi Deka opined the High Court observations at this juncture have brought some new perspective to the matter as it has put a question mark on the necessity of invoking POCSO and Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with punishment for rape, in such cases.
"The crackdown has been initiated as a result of family health survey reports, which exposed the failure of the state in implementing the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA) in spirit. This failure has made women of the state in general and backward communities, in particular, vulnerable to the social evil for over many decades now," Deka said.
The assistant professor of Political Science at Handique Girls' College also said that such a clampdown was again pushing these vulnerable women further to the margins.
"So, any action of the administration in implementing the law should act as a deterrent to law violators and not as an impediment to the marginalised," Deka said.
Three days after the Gauhati High Court made the observations, the chief minister said Assam will intensify action against those involved in child marriages as the state government aims to eliminate the social menace by 2026.
The Assam Police too asserted that operations are going on and arrests will continue within the "legally permissible framework".
"We will act as per the law. We have asked the police stations to proceed with whatever the law says," Assam Police spokesperson Prasanta Kumar Bhuyan said.
When asked about the slapping of the POCSO and Section 376 of the IPC, he said that sections are added in the FIR based on the complaints received in the police stations.
"The FIRs are registered on the basis of complaints received from affected parties. There are also suo motu cases," said Bhuyan, the Inspector General of Assam Police (Law and Order).
Till Friday, 3,058 people have been apprehended in 4,235 cases across the state.
Saying that awareness plays the most important role in preventing child marriages, Congress termed the intense crackdown as a "political stunt" of the chief minister.
"Sarma was the education and health minister in both Congress and BJP tenures. What did he do to stop child marriage and create awareness? Did he issue even a single statement against this social menace while he was a minister?" asked Assam Congress chief Bhupen Kumar Borah.
"While taking action, adopt a humane approach. What will happen to the families where such marriages took place several years ago? With the double-engine government failing, the CM is trying to divert people's attention from real issues of price rise and unemployment with a political stunt," Borah said.
Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) president Lurinjyoti Gogoi said the police action against the accused of child marriage is "motivated" and targetted against "religious minority" of the state.
"The entire drive has a communal design. It is a part of the Hindu-Muslim narrative…At several places, however, this has boomeranged because many tribals and people of tea garden communities have also been arrested," he added.
Stressing that awareness is of prime importance, Gogoi asked Sarma why had he not taken the initiative to stop child marriages when he was a minister during Congress rule and the BJP's first term in Assam.
"Such cheap politics is not at all acceptable. And not honouring the court observations is a serious issue… It indicates that an autocratic and fascist mindset is on the rise," the opposition leader said.
Another apprehension that a section of the people is raising is the condition of the jails in Assam as there is a huge space constraint for the prisoners.
Pointing out that all the arrested accused have been accomodated in different jails, Inspector General of Prisons Pubali Gohain said,
"We have not received any report of congestion from any jail in the state" .
The state has 31 jails, including six central jails, 22 district jails, one open-air jail, one special jail and one sub-jail, with a sanctioned capacity of around 8,950 inmates.