Muzaffarnagar’s riot relief camps have seen about 700 weddings in less than three months, many involving underage girls. And it is not exactly an outbreak of love in the time of violence.
There are two grim and more mundane reasons: A wedding could fetch an extra ‘compensation’ of up to Rs 1 lakh, and it is seen as protection against sexual harassment and assault in the relief camps.
Mass weddings were triggered soon after a few couples in Shamli district’s camps were gifted Rs 1 lakh each from the chief minister’s relief fund. The news spread like wildfire and the dirt-poor camp-dwellers scrambled to get this dole. The Kandhla camp has already seen three such mass weddings in which over 400 girls were married.
Nearly 160 couples tied the knot at the Shahpur camp and another 72 took vows at the Jolla camp. Although there isn’t an official count, a rough estimate by Mohd Zakir of Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind (JUH) — one of the organisations behind the hasty mass marriages — puts the figure at more than 700. In several ceremonies, the ‘nikah’ was performed by JUH leaders Mehmood Madani or his uncle Arshad Madani.
But the administration is now distancing itself from the ‘wedding gifts’. Pratap Singh, additional district magistrate, Shamli, told HT on Friday, “We gave Rs 1 lakh to only seven couples from the CM’s relief fund. But it wasn’t a compensation of any sort. It was just to support the girls who got married inside the camp.”
The Muzaffarnagar district administration said they had not played any role in such ceremonies.
Munna (he doesn’t use his surname), 58, a riot victim who lives at the Loi camp, sat in front of nine girls from his extended family outside his tent, explaining why the family chose to marry all of them on October 30 in a mass wedding ceremony organised by the committee which runs the Loi camp. Nearly 125 weddings have taken place in the camp since September.
“We had spent years in collecting dowry and money for their weddings and wanted to marry them before Bakr-Eid. But when we lost everything in the riots, we decided to marry these girls with whatever we are left with,” he said.
What Munna left unsaid was that he, like hundreds of others, married off their children — many still underage — to claim what they thought was a compensation which would come in handy in these desperate, hard times.
When HT interviewed the newlyweds, the camp-dwellers surrounded the team, mistaking us for government representatives. They wanted to register their children as ‘married’ so that they could claim compensation as well.
Some members of the JUH fed into this wedding hysteria when they started giving financial assistance to the newlyweds. The initial amount of Rs 15,000 soon dwindled to Rs 5,000 and then to a few gifts. Many at the Malakpur and Shahpur camps, where the younger Madani performed nikah, still wait for the promised Rs 15,000 by the leader.
But JUH secretary Hakeemuddin Qasmi had another take: “One of the reasons behind these marriages is that people wanted to save the honour of their daughters. No one married their girls out of greed or for compensation.”
Some survivors told HT they wanted to protect their daughters through marriage. Shamim Khatoon, 35, from the Loi camp admitted to marrying off her daughter to protect her from “prying eyes”.
“It didn’t matter if the girls were of marriageable age or not. We wanted our girls to be safe after the riots,” she said, explaining why she chose to marry off her 17-year-old daughter at the camp. “A married girl becomes the responsibility of the husband.”