By PIYUSH NAGPAL
MORIGAON, India (AP) — Nureja Khatun, 19, stands outside the local police station in her village in northeastern India, worried. She cradles her 6-month-old baby in her arms and waits to catch a glimpse of her husband before police take him to court.
Almost an hour later, she sees her husband Akbar Ali just seconds as he is being wheeled into a police van. An officer slams the door in her face before she can get any answers.
“Please release my husband. Otherwise you will take me into custody as well,” she asked.
Khatun’s husband is one of more than 3,000 men, including Hindu and Muslim priests, arrested nearly two weeks ago in the north-eastern state of Assam as part of a sweeping crackdown on illegal child marriages with girls under 18.
The action has left her – and hundreds of other women like her who married under 18 – in agony. Many of the women who are now adults say their families have been torn apart, leaving them angry and helpless.
Khatun relied on Ali, who she eloped with in 2021 at the age of 17, to take care of her. Earning 400 rupees (US$5) a day as a labourer, Ali was the only breadwinner in her family and the couple had a baby girl six months ago.
“Now there is no one to feed us. I don’t know if my family can survive,” Khatun said.
The strict measures are being implemented in a state of 35 million people where many cases of child marriage go unreported. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, only 155 cases of child marriage were recorded in Assam in 2021 and 138 in 2020.
In India, the legal age for marriage is 21 for men and 18 for women. Poverty, lack of education and social norms and practices, particularly in rural areas, are recognized as reasons for child marriage across the country.
UNICEF estimates that at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married in India each year, making India home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total. Data from India’s National Health Family Survey shows that more than 31% of marriages registered in Assam are of the prohibited age group.
The state government last month decided to completely abolish the practice of child marriage by 2026.
In some districts, the teenage pregnancy rate is as high as 26%, said Assam’s additional director-general of police, AVY Krishna. “These child marriages have become a social evil and the mortality rates are quite high as a result,” he said.
While the arrests have caused massive suffering for families and women are sobbing outside police stations across the state, the punitive action has also put lawyers and activists under the microscope.
Some men accused of marrying girls between the ages of 14 and 18 face charges under Indian law, which prohibits child marriage and carries a two-year prison sentence. Other men accused of marrying girls under 14 have been charged under a stricter law protecting children from sex crimes. This is non-bailable, with prison terms ranging from seven years to life.
Assam police have defended their actions as lawful under those two laws, but the Supreme Court in the state capital, Guwahati, has questioned the arrests. “The court is currently assuming that these are not matters of pre-trial detention,” it said on Tuesday.
Others said the government should raise awareness through education and social campaigns instead of arrests. “Under Supreme Court guidelines, arrests should be a last resort,” senior attorney Anshuman Bora said. “Out of the blue, they decide to start mass arrests to address the problem. Instead, they should focus on social reforms to stop this.”
Activists and political opponents in the state have accused Assam’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – of carrying out arrests in counties and areas populated by many of the state’s Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Critics say the community, which has immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh over the years, has often been marginalized by authorities, including a disputed citizenship register in the state they say discriminates against Muslims.
“We found that people of all religions were involved in child marriages,” said lawyer and social activist Hasina Ahmed. “We shouldn’t judge communities like that. We must not see caste and religion. We need to focus on the investigation and legal action to resolve the issues.”
Officials have denied the allegations and say hundreds of Hindu men have also been arrested.
Ahmed said the arrests are doing more harm than good to Assam’s communities. Most of the wives affected were untrained, unemployed and came from poor families in which their husbands were the sole breadwinners.
“The government could have penalized people for engaging in the practice from today. Punishing people now for old child marriages is not appropriate,” she said.
Radha Rani Mondal, 50, is determined to get her son out of jail but says she doesn’t have the money or the know-how to navigate the legal system. Her 20-year-old son was arrested on February 4 and her 17-year-old daughter-in-law is pregnant. She spent her last 500 rupees (US$6) to hire a lawyer whom she owes another 20,000 rupees (US$250).
“I go to the police and the lawyer every day on an empty stomach. On the one hand I have to get money for legal expenses and on the other hand I have to run my household and take care of my daughter-in-law. It is very difficult. I feel helpless,” she said, crying.