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  • Why has the Assam government decided to repeal the state’s Muslim Marriage Act? | Explained News

Why has the Assam government decided to repeal the state’s Muslim Marriage Act? | Explained News


Following a meeting on Friday (February 23) evening, it was announced that the state Cabinet has decided to repeal the Assam Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act of 1935. In the meeting, the Cabinet approved the ‘Assam Repealing Ordinance 2024’ which will repeal the 89-year-old Act.

Here why the state government took this step, and the political climate in which it was taken.

But first, what is the Act meant for?

Enacted in 1935, the Act lays down the process for registration of Muslim marriages and divorces. A 2010 amendment replaced the word ‘voluntary’ in the original Act with ‘compulsory’, making registration of Muslim marriages and divorces compulsory in the state of Assam.

The Act authorises the state to grant licences to “any person, being a Muslim” to register marriages and divorces, with Muslim registrars deemed to be public servants. It lays down the process through which marriage and divorce applications can be made to the registrar, and the process for their registration.

Crucially, the Act is in line with Muslim personal law.

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What is the Assam government’s rationale behind repealing the Act?

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma called this decision “another significant step towards prohibiting child marriages in Assam,” stating that the Act contains provisions allowing marriage registration even if the bride and groom have not reached the legal marriageable age of 18 and 21, respectively.

A note on the Cabinet meeting referred to it as “obsolete pre-Independence Act of the British for the then Province.” It also stated that the registration machinery in the Act is “informal” therefore “leaving a lot of scope for non-compliance of extant norms”.

Advocate Nekibur Zaman, who was part of a state government-appointed committee to examine the legality of a law to ban polygamy, stated that the Act essentially governs nikah and talaq in the state, for which the authority is a government-registered kazi. “Many kazis misuse the power, and often enable the marrying of minors and divorce without grounds,” he claimed, calling it an “outdated act.”

This decision also comes a fortnight after BJP-ruled Uttarakhand became the first state in the country to introduce a Uniform Civil Code. The Assam’s BJP government has been clear that it intends to soon do the same, and while announcing the Cabinet’s decision, minister Jayanta Malla Baruah touted repealing the Act as a significant step towards this end. He also said that after the Act’s repeal, Muslims will have to register marriages under the Special Marriage Act instead.

A district judge who did not wish to be named told The Indian Express that “as part of that process [to introduce a UCC], the state government will also have to repeal the acts that will be in contravention to it.”

Why did the state government link this decision to its crackdown on child marriages?

Last year, the Assam government had launched an unprecedented punitive crackdown against child marriages, arresting more than 4,000 and prosecuting most of them under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The government has resolved to “eradicate” child marriage by 2026.

The particular provision of the Act which was the chief minister said allowed child marriage is regarding the process of making a marriage application to the registrar. It states: “… provided that if the bride and groom, or both, be minors, application shall be made on their behalf by their respective lawful guardians…”

Under Muslim personal law, the marriage of a bride who has attained puberty is considered valid. Puberty is presumed, in the absence of evidence, on turning 15 years old.

However, Zunaid Khalid, an advocate and the president of Assam Millat Foundation, disagrees about the government’s stated intent. “If the government is serious about checking child marriage, it could have amended the portion in contravention, and specified that only marriages of brides and grooms of legally marriageable age can be registered under [the Act],” he said, adding that “the fallout of complete repeal of the Act is likely to just be more unregistered marriages.”

Advocate Aman Wadud, also a member of the Congress party, echoed similar sentiments, saying that the Act allows for a simple and decentralised marriage registration process, with 94 kazis spread across the state.

“Now, if the simple process under the Muslim Marriage Act is to be replaced with the Special Marriage Act — for which the nodal office is the District Commissioner’s office, entails a one-month notice period, more robust documentation, and which is a complicated process for poor, illiterate people — the outcome is likely to simply be reduced registration,” he said.

He further added that “in the absence of authorised kazis, the field would be wide open for unregistered kazis.”

What is the political background for the Assam Cabinet’s decision?

In Uttarakhand, which has already introduced a UCC, Muslims make up 13.95 per cent of the population. In Assam, they make a much higher proportion of the population — some 34 per cent as per the 2011 Census.

A majority of this population are Muslims of Bengali-origin, and Assamese nationalist politics has been largely in opposition to them, often tagged as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, with one of the central anxieties in the state being the impact of this migration on its demography.

Over the last year, the Himanta government has made a number of interventions in the realm of the family, marriages, and reproduction, which are perceived to be acting on these anxieties.

Along with its crackdown on child marriage — 62 per cent of more than 3,000 people put behind bars in the first round of arrests were Muslim — it has also capped the number of children one can have to be eligible for a new financial support scheme for rural women. The government is also working on a bill to ban polygamy, and make it a criminal offence.

Sarma has, on multiple occasions, stated that the Assam government is working towards introducing a UCC, although that the state’s tribal communities will be exempt from it.





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