India’s Assam state repeals British-era Muslim marriage law

The BJP government says the law allowed child marriages, but Muslim leaders allege the move is aimed at polarising voters ahead of election.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, greets the audience as he arrives with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Bishwa Sarma to address a public rally in Guwahati, India
PM Narendra Modi, centre, greets supporters as he arrives with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, right, to address a rally in Guwahati, Assam [File: Anupam Nath/AP]

The Indian state of Assam, which has a large Muslim population, has repealed a British-era law on Muslim marriage and divorce, prompting anger among the minority community whose leaders say the plan is an attempt to polarise voters on religious lines ahead of the national election.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote on X on Saturday that the state has repealed the Assam Muslim Marriages and Divorces Registration Act that was enacted close to nine decades ago.

“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,” he wrote.

The legislation, enacted in 1935, laid down the legal process in line with the Muslim personal law. After a 2010 amendment, it made the registration of Muslim marriages and divorces compulsory in the state, whereas registration was voluntary before.

Authorities in the state, which is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had called the law “outdated” and alleged it allowed child marriages.

The state government’s crackdown on child marriages, which started last year, has included several thousand arrests under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in a quest to “eradicate” child marriages by 2026.

But representatives of the Muslim community in the state said the crackdown was largely directed against them.

Assam, which has the highest percentage of Muslims among Indian states at 34 percent, has previously said it wants to implement uniform civil laws for marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance, as the northern state of Uttarakhand – also governed by the BJP – did earlier this month.

Nationwide, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other groups follow their own laws and customs or a secular code for such matters. The BJP has promised a Uniform Civil Code.

Assam’s government has said it intends to enact the same law as Uttarakhand. The Reuters news agency quoted Chief Minister Sarma as saying on Sunday the state is “not immediately” engaged in efforts to implement a unified code before the general election, due by May.

Bengali-speaking Muslims comprise the bulk of the Muslim population in Assam, and tensions often rise between them and ethnic Assamese, who are mostly Hindu. Nationalist politicians say a large-scale migration from neighbouring Bangladesh altered the demographic of the northeastern state.

‘They want to polarise voters’

Assam’s decision on the Muslim marriage and divorce law prompted Muslim opposition leaders to accuse the BJP of trying to use the colonial-era law as an election ploy.

“They want to polarise their voters by provoking Muslims, which Muslims will not let happen,” Badruddin Ajmal, a legislator from Assam who heads the All India United Democratic Front that mainly fights for Muslim causes, told reporters on Saturday.

“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 criticised 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,” said Abdur Rashid Mandal of the main opposition Indian National Congress party.

Mandal dismissed assertions that the law allows for child marriage, adding that it was “the only mechanism to register the marriages of Muslims” in the state.

“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.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies