This Indian State Just BANNED Muslim Child Marriage

Just weeks after the northern state of Uttarakhand in India passed a uniform civil code (UCC) that unified personal laws on marriage and divorce and banned certain practices such as polygamy and child marriage, another northern Indian state made an unprecedented move to repeal a colonial-era law on Muslim marriage and divorce to ban child marriage.

The move stoked anger among the state’s Muslim community, with some calling it an attempt to polarize voters on religious lines ahead of the upcoming 2024 Indian general election, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to win a historic third term as India’s head of government.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam, announced on X (formerly known as Twitter) that the state’s government repealed the Assam Muslim Marriages and Divorces Registration Act of 1935, effective February 24th, calling the decision an effort to ban child marriages in the state.

On February 23, the Assam cabinet made a significant decision to repeal the age-old Assam Muslim Marriages & Divorces Registration Act. This act contained provisions allowing marriage registration even if the bride and groom had not reached the legal ages of 18 and 21, as required by law. This move marks another significant step towards prohibiting child marriages in Assam,” Sarma said.

This law, enacted in 1935 when the Indian subcontinent was under British rule, laid down the legal process for marriage and divorce among Assam’s Muslims in line with Muslim personal laws. Assam, which has the highest percentage of Muslims among Indian states at 34%, amended the law in 2010 to make it mandatory for Muslims to register their marriages, whereas registration was voluntary.

The Assamese state government, governed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), described the law as “outdated” since it allowed child marriages. The state’s crackdown on child marriages, which started last year, included several arrests under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in a bid to “eradicate” child marriages by 2026.

Although the chief minister claimed that repealing the decades-old law would help the state in its efforts to crack down on child marriages, one of his cabinet ministers, Jayanta Malla Baruah, said that the bigger motivation for scrapping the legislation, which he described as a “colonial Act,” was to implement a UCC similar to what Uttarakhand passed a couple of weeks ago.

Nevertheless, Sarma said that Assam is “not immediately” engaged in efforts to pass a UCC before the general elections, which are due by May. Sarma, who has been leading a campaign against child marriages in the state, also added that Assam had to repeal the law because it left much scope for “non-compliance of norms.” In addition, Baruah said that after the law has been repealed, Muslim marriages will be registered under the Special Marriage Act.

Despite his claims, critics believe that Assam’s state government is polarizing voters ahead of the election and that the decision to repeal the law was discriminatory, adding its campaign to crack down against child marriages in the state unfairly targeted Muslims, who mostly trace their roots to the neighboring country of Bangladesh. 

They want to polarise their voters by provoking Muslims, which Muslims will not let happen,” Badruddin Ajmal, a state legislator who also heads the All India United Democratic Front, a political party that fights for Muslim causes, said. “It’s a first step towards bringing a Uniform Civil Code, but this is how the BJP government will come to an end in Assam.

Other opposition parties also criticized the decision.

Just before the election, the government is trying to polarise the voters, depriving and discriminating against Muslims in some fields, like repealing the registration and divorce act, saying that it is a pre-independence act of 1935,” Abdur Rashid Mandal of the main opposition Indian National Congress (INC) said, dismissing claims that the law was being used to register child marriages in the state and arguing that it was “the only mechanism to register the marriages of Muslims” in Assam.

There is no other scope or institution, and it is also as per the constitution of India. It is the personal law of the Muslims that can’t be repealed.” Mandal added.

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