Field Notes: ‘Can You Talk To Himanta Sarma & Have My Husband Released?’

SANSKRITA BHARADWAJ

Apuni Himanta’k kobo paribo—muk asoni nelage, muk mur shaami lage, (Can you talk to Himanta Sarma? I don’t want any government schemes, but I want my husband released.)

Petite, feisty but teary-eyed and visibly distressed, Ambiya Khatun had just finished talking to two television journalists, after which she took me aside and made this request in Assamese, hoping against hope that I would have some influence over Assam’s chief minister. 

“I am not sure, but I can write about your ordeal,” I told her. 

"What else can I do?” I thought to myself. 

Dressed in a long printed maxi dress, a pink scarf tied around her neck, as she cradled her four-month-old son, the 18-year-old was desperate to get her spouse back, as indeed hundreds were after husbands, fathers, sons and even priests were arrested by police in Assam’s unprecedented drive to stop child marriage.  

As you read this piece, 23 days after I talked to Ambiya, her husband, Rabul Hussain, is still in custody. It was clear she was underage when they married, and she was desperate to have him back, which is why she made the hopeless request for chief ministerial intervention of me, a stranger she had just met.

Two years ago, said Ambiya, then 16, had fallen in love with Hussain, then 28 and from the same village. 

“Does your husband love you?” I asked her. 

It seemed important to know, and it wasn’t obvious since many girls who marry early have little agency in marital decisions.

Muk bohut morom kore (he loves me a lot),” Ambiya said.

Ambiya said she could only continue her studies after marriage with her husband’s support. She was studying in class 9 when they married. She's now still trying to complete her class 10 exams. “He would take me to school every day on his cycle,” she said. 

I met Ambiya in the first week of February in Morigaon—about a couple of hours east of my hometown Guwahati—to visit families whose sons, husbands and brothers were arrested in the Assam government’s widely criticised (here, here and here) mass crackdown on child marriages. 

While writing this story, she was one of three women I met from remote villages, distraught and helpless at suddenly navigating their way through a crisis that had overturned their lives in an instant. 

It wasn’t as though their lives were easier before. All were struggling to make ends meet. 

As a reporter, there was little I could do but listen. So, when Ambiya talked, I could only record her desperation.

“I will kill myself and my son if they don’t release him,” she told me after she requested help from Sarma. “What future do the two of us have without him? Why is the government doing this to us?”

I spoke to activists, social workers and lawyers who said that child marriage was a social problem best addressed by more access to education and transport in rural areas, especially for girls to keep them in school longer and delay such marriages. 

Young girls are seen as a burden in areas affected by conflict, displacement and disaster and among marginalised communities. The experts said that stopping child marriages is important, but random and arbitrary arrests could not do it because the poorest were being arrested, Assam’s most vulnerable people. 

Like Ambiya, I also met Husnara Khatun and Samima Akhtar, who, too, ran away from their respective homes to marry the men they claimed they loved. Samima studied till class 9. She told me she wanted to study further, but her family’s financial situation prevented her from attending school. 

Somewhat sheepishly, Samima asked me, “Apuni tu bohut porhise saake? (You must have studied a lot?).” 

Samima’s one-month-old baby girl was running a high fever when I met her. Worried sick, she did not want to burden her brothers, who she said had their wives and children to look after. She, too, wished the government would release her husband soon. 

A heavily pregnant Husnara Khatun, whose face was covered with a red polka-dotted scarf, told me that she wasn’t aware that it was legally not allowed for her to marry before 18. 

“If I had known, I wouldn’t have done it,” said Husnara.

While frustrated and helpless with their situations, most of the family members I met were eager enough to narrate their ordeal—in the hope that the government would somehow listen to what they had to say. 

You can read Sanskrita Bharadwaj’s full story here

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