In a major state-wide crackdown on child marriages, the Assam Police arrested around 2,000 people on February 3 from across the state for allegedly marrying girls below the age of 18 years, and booked them under provisions of the POCSO Act and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.
Interestingly, most of the districts in Lower and Central Assam which have seen the maximum number of arrests in this respect so far are Muslim-dominated.
Over the past few years, cases of child marriage through court affidavits have seen a huge spurt in these districts. In fact, Dhubri district of Assam was in the news few years back when a video of a woman being stripped and beaten by a mob for filing a police complaint against the marriage of her minor son went viral. Nine of the state’s districts reportedly figure among the top 100 districts of India with high incidences of child marriages. Dhubri district is ranked 17 in this list.
A report on child marriages prepared by the NCPCR estimated the rate of such marriages in Assam at 16.7%, which is much higher than the national average of 11.9%. In an article published in the Guwahati/Northeast edition of The Times of India on July 07, 2021, a Professor in the Center for Population Studies at the Gauhati University had stated that child marriage amongst the Muslims of Assam stood at 14.9%; whereas, amongst the Hindus it is only 4.5%.
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Most of these marriages among Muslims are fixed via legal affidavits prepared by advocates prior to the formal nīkāāh ceremony, for a minimum fee varying between Rs. 500-1000/- on mutually agreed terms between the future groom and the parents of the minor girl child who has not yet attained the age of consent. These affidavits are later authenticated by the notary of a lower court, often in the presence of a māulvī.
Most importantly, although it is mentioned in the affidavit that the girl would be married off only after she attains the legal age of marriage, but in a majority of the cases, she is made to enter into wedlock soon after the signing of the agreement between the two parties. With the minor girl becoming pregnant after the consummation of the marriage, cases of maternal and infant mortality see a sharp spike owing to complications arising from an early pregnancy.
In the same Times of India article as mentioned above, the Professor had raised doubts on the findings of a National Family Health Survey (NFHS) which showed a fall in the total fertility rate of Muslim women in Assam. He said that while Census data is collected after a survey of each and every household, sample survey data is based on located or identified samples.
In order to substantiate his claims, the Professor said that if a Muslim man has four wives, each giving birth to 4-5 children, these are often not taken into consideration during the sample survey most of the times. Only one or the last woman is considered for the purpose of the sample.
Moreover, female sterilisation among Muslim women is one of the lowest. The data in NFHS-3 revealed that sterilization is twice as common among Hindus compared to Muslims. While 32.78% of Hindu respondents were sterilized, the number for Muslims sterilized was only 16.60%.
As written by S.R. Swaroop in his book Truth About Muslim Population Explosion in India, there may be two possible reasons behind it. One may be that the Governments actively target Hindu women to increase the number of sterilizations officially, or Hindus are themselves more inclined to use this contraceptive method, leading to a permanent loss of fertility.
It is difficult to pick one reason out of the two, but the outcome is the same in both the cases. It is in the backdrop of these and a few more concerns related to health, reproduction, and population control, that Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had announced on January 23 that the Government of Assam would launch a major state-wide drive against child marriages.
He also mentioned that the main targets of the Government will be the mūllāhs and māulvīs who encourage such marriages, one of the main reasons behind increasing incidences of child pregnancy, maternal and infant mortalities in the state.
Prior to this, the CM had clearly stated in a public meeting that women should attain motherhood between the age of 22-30 years, in order to avoid health complications arising from a late pregnancy. Well, the CM’s concerns might seem too far-fetched if analysed from an individualist perspective. But, from the point of view of the society, his views on the right age for marriage and motherhood cannot entirely be refuted, especially keeping in mind the vastly changing demographic tables of different communities.
The CM’s comments on marriage and motherhood need to be understood against the background of the rapid increase in health problems in today’s time. Despite all its new advancements, modern medical science has proven to be a failure in tackling various health issues, including reproductive issues like infertility, PCOS, etc. With an increase in the age of marriage, infertility has emerged as a major concern among couples, especially in the metropolitan cities of the country. The larger problem in this context has been that of a declining Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in the urban areas.
With increasing urbanisation and education, the overall TFR of India is expected to fall much below the replacement level in the Census of 2021. It is projected to fall further to 1.80 by 2026-30, as per statistics of the Health and Family Welfare Department. In 2018, the TFR stood at an all-time low of 2.222, which meant that on an average, 1,000 Indian women have 2,222 babies during their child-bearing years. However, considering the fact that India’s TFR is already falling over the years, the real danger is that of a declining TFR among the urban-rich, educated Hindu families vis-à-vis the Muslims.
From 1981-2011, the overall average growth rate of the population of Assam was 20.07%. This was much below the national average of 21.03% during the same period. Assam has been able to maintain its annual population growth rate at 1.6%, but it was found during the 2001 and 2011 Censuses that the Muslim population is growing at a rate of 29%. In contrast, the Hindu population in the state has come down from 22% to 16% and further reduced to 10% during the latest Censuses.
With respect to the total population of India too, the share of Hindus declined from 84.1% in 1951 to 79.8% in 2011, first time since the Partition of India when the Hindu population reached below 80%. On the other hand, the share of Muslims increased from 9.9% to 14.23% during the same period. This makes India home to the 3rd largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan.
The fertility rate across Muslim population groups remains high compared to other communities, and this cannot alone be attributed to their levels of education or economic status. It is a fact that has been proven after long years of research by many famous demographers like Mari Bhat, Hill Kulu, etc. The TFR ratio for Muslims versus Hindus in India stood at 2.62/2.13=1.24 as per data from the NFHS-4, i.e. Muslims have a 24% higher TFR than Hindus.
Demographics is thus not a linear business. A disproportionate growth of the Muslim population vis-à-vis other communities, especially the Hindus, has been majorly responsible for perpetrating an unstable religious demography especially in states like Assam, West Bengal, and Kerala. CM Himanta Biswa Sarma’s move against the menace of child marriage in Assam is thus rightly aimed at addressing a host of underlying issues – social, economic, cultural, political, and medical – that stare at the demography of the state today.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Indic Studies, Indus University, Ahmedabad).
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