Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Monday said that until he is alive, he won’t allow the marriage of teenage girls in Assam. He was speaking in the state assembly as the Assam Cabinet on Friday abrogated the Assam Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act of 1935. “We will not rest in peace until we completely close the shop that you people have opened to ruin the daughters of the Muslim community,” the CM added. The decision came after a meeting where the cabinet approved the ‘Assam Repealing Ordinance 2024’ and nullified the 89-year-old Act. 

What Is the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act of 1935? 

Enacted in 1935, the Act outlines the procedure for registering Muslim marriages and divorces. An amendment was made in 2010 which replaced the term ‘voluntary’ with ‘compulsory,’ mandating the registration of Muslim marriages and divorces in Assam. The Act empowers the state to issue licenses for the registration of marriages and divorces for any Muslim individual. The Act designates Muslim registrars as public servants and specifies the application process for marriage and divorce registration with the registrar. The Act was in line with Muslim personal law. 

Rationale Behind Abrogation The Law? 

CM described this move as another notable stride in preventing child marriages in Assam. He said that the Act permits marriage registration even if the bride and groom are below the legally marriageable ages of 18 and 21, respectively. A statement from the Cabinet meeting characterised it as an “outdated pre-Independence Act from the British era for the then Province.” It also pointed out that the registration mechanism in the Act is informal thus “allowing non-compliance with existing norms.” 

The Act governs the ‘nikah and ‘talaq’ in the state and for the registration, the ‘kazi’ were appointed by the government. According to reports, many kazis misused their power and often allowed marriage of a minor. 

This move comes two weeks after the BJP-ruled Uttarakhand became the first state in India to implement a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). The BJP-led government in Assam has expressed a similar intention. In the words of Minister Jayanta Malla Baruah, the repeal of the Act is a crucial step toward this objective. He also mentioned that with the Act’s repeal, Muslims would be required to register marriages under the Special Marriage Act instead. 

Link With Child Marriage 

Last year, the Assam government initiated an unprecedented crackdown against child marriages, arresting over 4,000 individuals and prosecuting most under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The government is committed to eliminating child marriage by 2026. The specific provision of the Act that the chief minister mentioned as allowing child marriage pertains to the process of submitting a marriage application to the registrar. It states: “…provided that if the bride and groom, or both, be minors, the application shall be made on their behalf by their respective lawful guardians…”

Political Context Behind This Decision 

In Uttarakhand, where a UCC has already been implemented, Muslims constitute a less proportion percentage, while in Assam, this proportion is significantly higher at approximately 34 per cent according to the 2011 Census. 

In the past year, the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led government has taken various measures in the areas of family, marriages, and reproduction, seen as addressing these concerns. Apart from the crackdown on child marriage, where 62 per cent of over 3,000 individuals arrested in the initial round were Muslim, the government has imposed a limit on the number of children one can have to qualify for a new financial support scheme for rural women.  

Additionally, there are efforts to draft a bill criminalising polygamy. Also, CM Sarma has reiterated multiple times that the Assam government is keen towards implementing a UCC, with an exemption for the state’s tribal communities.