Assam’s massive crackdown on child marriages has invited piercing questions from the Gauhati High Court, which has red-flagged the inclusion of charges under the tough law to protect children from sexual crimes.
More than 3,000 people allegedly linked with child marriages have been taken into custody so far across Assam, and lodged in temporary jails, sparking protests by women who decried the arrest of sole breadwinners of their families.
The police action has been questioned because it has scoped out cases dating back years, and experts have also doubted the legality of applying the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences or POCSO Act in child marriage cases.
Granting pre-arrest bail to nine people charged under the POCSO Act, with a minimum sentence of 20 years in one of the cases, the Gauhati High Court on Tuesday observed that these are not instances which require custodial interrogation.
“POCSO you can add anything. What is the POCSO [charge] here? Merely because POCSO is added, does it mean judges will not see what is there? We are not acquitting anyone here. No one is preventing you to probe,” Justice Suman Shyam said.
“Is there any allegation of rape here?”, he said, hearing another case, and calling the allegations “weird”.
“At the moment, this court is of the opinion that these are matters that do not require custodial interrogation… If you find someone is guilty, file a chargesheet,” the court said in another related case.
“This is causing a havoc in the private life of people. There are children, family members, old people. Obviously it (child marriage) is bad idea. We will give our views but at the moment the issue is whether they should be all arrested and put in jail,” it added.
Championed by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as a way to fix the state’s poor health metrics, the crackdown on child marriage began on February 3 with more than 4,000 police cases.
“The drive against this social evil will continue. We seek the support of the people of Assam in our fight against this social crime,” the Chief Minister said on Friday.
Opposition parties have criticised how the drive is being carried out, terming the arrests of teenage husbands and family members as an “abuse of law” for political gain, and equating the police action with “terrorising people”.