Child marriages flourish among Muslims in Assam with alleged collusion of court officials, lawyers and ignorant parents

Fifty-year-old Abdul Hoque is a relieved man. He has ‘fixed’ the marriage of his 16-year-old minor daughter Narsina Begum with one Majnu Ahmed, a man just nine years shy of having lived half a century – in other words, a man old enough to be her father.

An agreement – a notarised affidavit – was made on 10 August, 2018 between Majnu and Abdul “on behalf of his daughter”, promising to solemnise the couple’s marriage according to Islamic law when Narsina attains the age of majority.

 Child marriages flourish among Muslims in Assam with alleged collusion of court officials, lawyers and ignorant parents

Representational image. Reuters

The contract also has a catch - a penalty clause stating that if the second party, i.e. the father of the bride, fails to wed his daughter as stipulated, “the 2nd party will pay Rs 5,00,000 only towards the first party (groom) as compensation, otherwise the 2nd party shall be liable in the eye of law, and the first party can take shelter of court for legal justice”.

Added to this is the grim reality that the minor girl is usually sent to the future groom’s house soon after the affidavit is signed.

The above agreement was made by SA Akhtar, a public notary in Bilasipara subdivision of Dhubri district in Assam, a state where cases of child marriage through court affidavits are seeing a spurt, and increasingly drawing attention and condemnation.

In India, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act states that a girl can’t marry before the age of 18, and a boy before 21.

The marriage problem in Assam

Assam’s Dhubri district was in the news when a video of a woman being stripped and tonsured by a mob for filing a police complaint against the marriage of her minor son went viral.

A report on child marriages by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights put the rate of such marriages in Assam at 16.7 percent - higher than the national average of 11.9 percent. Another media report pointed out that Assam had registered a 10-fold rise in child marriages in three years, and that the number of such marriages in 2017-18 was 317, while the figure was 32 in 2015-16 and 96 in 2016-17.

Nine of the state’s districts reportedly figure among the top 100 districts of India with high incidents of child marriages. Assam’s Dhubri ranks 17 on the list.

Most of such marriages are fixed via affidavits or ‘pre-marriage agreements’ prepared by advocates for a fee as paltry as Rs 500 to Rs 1,000, on mutually agreed terms between the two parties -- the future groom being the first party and the parents of the minor child the second.

Prepared as a legal document and authenticated by the notary of a lower court, the affidavits are considered as “marriage deeds” of a minor who is yet to attain the age of consent, often with a person thrice her age.

“Such kind of agreements mostly takes place between the poor parents of a girl child and the relatively rich family of a boy. After both parties decide on the marriage, they go to the notary for a ‘legal agreement’,” said Illias Rahman Sarkar, a child rights activist of Assam.

In another such case, the marriage of one Yasmin was fixed with one Abdul Hannan SK via an affidavit made on 25 January this year. The girl was aged 16 years and four months at the time of the agreement and said to be “in deep love” with the groom, 24.

An advocate named Manjar Ziaanin prepared the document that was authenticated by Lohit Kumar Narzary, notary of the district court of Kokrajhar, in western Assam.

The affidavit read: “The daughter of the first party is a minor, but the said daughter has fallen in deep love with the second party since long. As the bride is a minor and their valid social marriage cannot be solemnised at the present stage, hence the guardian of the minor daughter and the second party… has decided to solemnise the valid marriage after attaining majority age by the daughter.”

One of the contract’s terms said the minor girl “will stay at the house of the 2nd party”, i.e. the house of the future groom, and that the “2nd party will look after and maintain her properly till marriage".

“In most such cases, the minor girl is sent to the future groom’s house soon after the marriage agreement. They actually stay as husband and wife,” Sarkar said.

'Misuse of power'

Notary Lohit Kumar Narzary explains his side of the story, pointing out that he authenticates such marriage affidavits because of the need to maintain cordial relationships with advocates and minority community members.

Often, he said, he did not even properly read the affidavits because of time constraints.

“Look Ma'am, I also know that such agreements are not legal. But what can I do? I am friends with the advocates who make such pacts. The people who come to get the affidavit made for their children are known to me. I have to maintain a cordial relationship with all of them. Most of the time, I remain so busy that I do not go through the agreement properly,” Narzary said.

In his own words, he has authenticated more than 15 such agreements of minors in the past three years.

According to Malaya Deka, chairperson of Kokrajhar’s child welfare committee, “The notary misuses his power. Though the affidavit says the girl would be socially married after she attains marriageable age, the reality is that she starts a conjugal life right after the agreement is signed. I have got cases where the minor bride becomes pregnant and later dies owing to early pregnancy.”

She added: “If we go to the parents of the minor girl and make them understand about the menace of child marriage, they bring the girl home for a few days and then again send her to the husband’s place.”

Deka has dealt with eight such cases in the past one year, with the latest surfacing just a month ago.

The police are not in a position to take action in such incidents, she explained.

“If you inform the police, they go to the house of the minor girl and the parents show the agreement. If they ask the whereabouts of the girl, the parents say she has gone to her relative's place. It becomes very difficult to make a case if the villagers, parents and relatives do not cooperate with the investigation,” Deka said.

Awareness must to stop practice

On 8 June, a minor girl, forcibly married to a 40-year-old man in Assam’s Bongaigaon district was rescued by a relative. The 13-year-old girl was married to one Abdul Barik in April as per Islamic rituals. On 6 May, Abdul Barik came to the minor’s house, to take her to his house permanently.

Though the girl refused to go, she was made to sit in Abdul Barik’s motorcycle. On the way to his house in Seula char of Barpeta, the girl jumped off the vehicle and ran towards a relative’s place in Dumoriya Part 1 village in Abhayapuri subdivision of Bongaigaon.

The locals later rescued the girl and caught Barik who was looking for the girl in the village. However, the police refused to register any case against Barik and allowed him to go.

“This is the 39th registered case of child marriage in Bongaigaon since 2017. We have been able to reduce the numbers by creating awareness programs in villages. But to totally stop it, we need co-operation from the police.” said Mustafa Hussain, the District Child Protection Officer of Bongaigaon.

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2019 16:14:21 IST