In a massive crackdown on child marriage in Assam, the police on Friday arrested 2,044 people including Hindu and Muslim priests who conducted such weddings which, the authorities said, will be declared illegal.
"We have a list of 8,000 named accused and so far we have arrested only 2,044 people. The drive against child marriage will continue over the next three to four days and after we get all the data, a proper district-wise analysis can be done," Director General of Police G P Singh said.
Till Friday evening, the highest number of 137 arrests have been made in Biswanath district, followed by 126 in Dhubri, 120 in Baksa, 114 in Barpeta and 96 in Kokrajhar.
Besides members of families that married off their underage children, the police arrested 51 'purohits' and 'kazis' who conducted such wedding rituals in religious institutions, the DGP said.
He said the arrests were made after verification of inputs received from family members, the child welfare society, local people and the police personnel.
"We will act according to the law, conduct proper investigations and submit charge sheets," Singh said.
The state cabinet recently decided that those having married girls below 14 years of age will be booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, and cases under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 will be registered against those who have married girls in the 14-18 years age group.
They will be arrested and the marriages will be declared illegal.
If the groom is also below 14 years of age, he will be sent to a reform house.
How many of the arrested people were minors is not yet known till the publication of the report.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said he has directed the police to act with a 'spirit of zero tolerance against the unpardonable and heinous crime on women'.
Meanwhile, women came out in large numbers to protest against the arrest of their husbands and sons.
"Why take only the men? How will we and or our children survive? We have no means of income," said 55-year-old Niroda Doley of Majuli district.
Jehira Begum of Dhubri said that her 19-year-old son had brought home a girl who studied in college with him but they were not married yet.
"Her father, however, reported it to the police and now both my son and husband have been arrested," she said.
A woman of Barpeta district, who did not wish to be named, said her son had 'eloped with a minor girl. He made a mistake, but why arrest my sick husband?'
Monowara Khatoon of Morigaon said, "My daughter-in-law was 17 when she got married. Now she is 19 and five months pregnant. Who will look after her?"
Protests were also made from other quarters.
Pointing out that campaigning against child marriage is a welcome step, college student Ananya Barua said, "But it will create a lot of problems for those who are already married and have children."
All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) president Rejaul Karim Sarkar claimed they were working to end child marriage in minority-dominated areas for the last five years and had submitted several memoranda to the government but did not get any response from the authorities.
"Just arresting people and asking the police to file cases will not solve the problem. All sections of the society must be involved in the campaign against child marriage so that people are convinced that it is a wrong practice," Sarkar said.
The chief minister on January 28 had said, "Thousands of husbands will be arrested in the next five-six months as it is a crime to have sexual relations with a girl below 14 years of age, even if he is her legally wed husband... Many (men who marry girls) could face life imprisonment."
Assam has a high rate of maternal and infant mortality, with child marriage being the primary cause as an average of 31 per cent of marriages registered in the state are in the prohibited age, according to reports of the National Family Health Survey.