HC upholds jail term for 9 men who married off minors in 1994

HC upholds jail term for 9 men who married off minors in 1994

 The Bombay High Court has upheld the conviction of nine people who acted like members of a "Khap Panchayat" in a village of adjoining Raigad district and forcibly married off a boy and a girl, both minors, against wishes of their parents in 1994.

"Every person has a right to choose his/her partner. In a child marriage, on decision taken by a Panchayat, such right to choose is violated if it (marriage) is performed," said Justice Mridula Bhatkar in a judgement on April 29.

The court was hearing the appeal of the nine people who had challenged their conviction. They had been sentenced to different jail terms under Child Marriage (Restraint) Act and IPC for kidnapping the boy and the girl.

According to prosecution, the accused had objected to the boy and the girl meeting quite often in the village and asked their mothers to get them married. However, the parents refused because the two were minors. Village Panchayat members then forcibly took away the girl and the boy from the custody of their parents and got them married on January 9, 1994.

Not just this, the mothers of the two were also fined Rs 750 each by the Panchayat members. Hence, the men were also found guilty of extortion apart from kidnapping.

Upset with the wedding, the girl's mother lodged a complaint with the police which probed the case and filed a charge sheet. The case was tried in a Sessions Court which sentenced the accused to jail terms ranging from 15 days to 2 years on various charges.

"The accused unfortunately believed that meeting by young persons of opposite sex and talking with each other or having an affair is immoral and harmful to the society. Therefore, they could not digest the friendship and openness between the girl and the boy, and compelled them to marry," observed Justice Bhatkar.

However, the Judge reduced the quantum of sentence awarded to them by the trial court to up to one month only.

"Though it is a case of kidnapping and extortion, it is also (reflection) of regressive and orthodox social norms existing at that time in the village," she noted.

The defence lawyer, S Malik, argued that proof of age submitted by the girl was doubtful. He also said the Sessions Court had no jurisdiction to try a child marriage case, which should have been heard only by a Magistrate.

The lawyer argued that it was only an engagement since the marriage was not performed as per Hindu rites. However, the HC observed that "even if the function was an engagement, the submissions were not convincing."

"There was 'homam' (fire ritual) and all rituals were performed before a priest. Moreover, after the ceremony, the girl started living at the boy's house," the Judge observed.

The court opined that the prosecution had proved beyond doubt that the girl, then aged 15 years and three months, had been taken away from her mother's custody.

Arfan Sait, public prosecutor, argued that their evidence and witnesses were reliable and credible. The accused acted like a 'Khap Panchayat' (community council). As marriage is entirely a personal issue, they should not have thrust their decision on the boy, the girl and their parents.

Sait submitted that the trial court's guilty verdict was legal and hence conviction should be upheld by the HC.

However, the defence lawyer argued that the accused were innocent and had not committed the offences of extortion and kidnapping.

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