Last week, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar started a statewide campaign against two social problems — dowry and child marriage. When laws already exist to deal with both of these, the government has cited Bihar’s social indicators to justify the drive while the Opposition has dismissed it as an attempt by Nitish to stay afloat in politics.
Under the Child Marriage Prevention Act, 2006, an offender can be punished with a jail term up to two years or a Rs 1 lakh fine, or both. Under IPC provisions, giving and taking dowry is a punishable offence with a jail term up to seven years.
Nitish has stressed the need for effective social reforms and empowerment of women. At a function in Patna to launch the twin campaigns, he referred to an earlier drive, recalling how some people had mocked the prohibition his government had enforced in April 2016.
“One can now see the impact of prohibition — how there is peace in society and happiness at homes,” Nitish said. “If we fight against dowry and child marriage, it will lead to social empowerment of women. The prevalence of child marriage in Bihar in 39.1.” Prevalence is the percentage of women aged 20-24 who are married before age 18.
The government has sent groups of artistes, social workers and self-help groups to various districts to launch a sustained awareness campaign in society and at schools. A ceremony was held in which government officials and others took a pledge to work towards the eradication of these two social problems.
“We want the chief minister to bring a law to make mukhiyas and ward councillors responsible for any child marriage in his area. We hope to erase these social blots in two years,” Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi said at the launch function.
Over six lakh members of self-help groups, aanganwadi centre members, UNICEF teams and artistes will spread awareness through pamphlets, seminars, public interactions and nukkad natak. The awareness campaign has been under way since October 2.
“There are four broad social indicators that have prompted the drive against dowry and child marriage,” said Anand Madhab of Gender Resource Centre under the state government’s department of social welfare. “As per the National Health Family Survey 2015-16, 48% of Bihar’s population are women; 55% of the women are either pregnant or mothers before age 19; 49.6% of them are literate; 43.2% suffer from domestic violence as against the national average of 28.8%.”
As per NCRB data, 1,154 dowry deaths were registered in Bihar in 2015, second only to Uttar Pradesh. Bihar is in 11th position in terms of crime against women among Indian states and Union territories. Altogether 1,867 cases have been so far registered under the Dowry Prevention Act. Bihar Police’s website, however, has not posted records of child marriage and dowry cases. A senior police officer said the number of dowry cases has been more or less static over a decade while child marriages often go unreported.
“There is hardly any politician in the country other than Nitish who has been talking of social reform,” said JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi. “He enforced prohibition in April 2016. He has drawn from Gandhism. It is not escapism but taking up a big challenge above politics.”
Asked why Nitish has launched it in 2017 and did not do so in 2005, Tyagi said, “The time is just ripe for it. PM Narendra Modi has spoken of beti bachao, and one may ask why A B Vajpayee had not done so.”
RJD national vice president Shivanand Tiwari said, “Nitish has a vacillating political ideology. He now has no say in national politics and needs an issue to stay afloat in state politics. He is probably trying to divert people’s attention from the Srijan scam. What can one say about a man who aligned with the Left, had been with Lalu Prasad, then with the BJP and with Lalu again, and is back again with the BJP? He chooses political planks as per his convenience.”
Between 2005 and mid-2013, then NDA CM Nitish had made good governance his political plank with Lalu as his target. Along the way, he also took up a demand for special category status to Bihar. Ahead of 2014, he challenged the emerging leadership of Narendra Modi, then Gujarat CM, and split from the NDA to align with Lalu, a phase during which prohibition became one of his key planks.