An Indian groom puts vermilion, considered the holy mark of Hindu marriage, on the forehead of his underage bride during a mass marriage program. Photo: AFP / Stroel
An Indian groom puts vermilion, considered the holy mark of Hindu marriage, on the forehead of his underage bride during a mass marriage program. Photo: AFP / Stroel

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is propagating the campaign “Save Daughters, Educate Daughters” (Beti Bachao, Beti Padao), a female candidate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for an upcoming state election is promising to facilitate child marriage in the northern state of Rajasthan.

Sobha Chauhan, who is running for the BJP in Sojat, in Rajasthan’s Pali district, was seen in a widely circulated video saying that she had satta (power) and sangathan (state government) and would “not let the police intervene in child marriages.”

Chauhan was addressing a public gathering in Sojat ahead of Rajasthan Legislative Assembly polls scheduled for this Friday, December 7. The promise, made for political gain locally, could dent the BJP’s image on a wider level in the crucial national-level election next year as India strives to do away with the age-old custom of child marriage.

Child marriage still plagues many parts of India, leading to exploitation of young girls and damage to their health, childhood and education. Rajasthan reports the highest incidence of child marriage in the country, according to research published by the non-governmental organization Young Lives in coordination with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The study was based on the 2011 census, the latest available data.

Sojat’s returning officer Ayub Khan, who oversees the conduct of elections, said the Election Commission had issued a notice to Chauhan seeking an explanation of her actions.

“We have got this video which has gone viral. The notice was issued yesterday. She has been given two days’ time to reply,” Khan was quoted as saying by The Times of India on Sunday.

The practice, where an underage girl (below the age of 18 years) is married to another underage boy (below the age of 21 years) or an adult man, is banned in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The law has provisions to punish any adult participating in or facilitating such a marriage with up to two years in prison or a fine of as much as 100,000 rupees (US$1,425) or both.

The 2006 act, which replaced the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, entitles a child who was married off to obtain an annulment by filing a petition to a District Court within two years of becoming an adult. The 1929 act was the first to prohibit child marriage in India. It came into being in British India as a result of the country’s social-reform movement and despite opposition from the British.

Moreover, in a landmark judgment last year, the Supreme Court of India ruled that sexual intercourse with a wife under 18, the legal age of consent, is rape.

According to reports, earlier this year, the federal Ministry of Women and Child Development proposed to amend the existing child-marriage law by declaring such marriages “void ab initio” or invalid from the outset. But the bill is pending before the cabinet.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 doesn’t invalidate child marriage but gives the contracting parties the option to annul it.