“I am engaged to Anjali, she lives near my home, will get married to her soon,” says Salman, his eyes gleaming with pride. All fine, except that he is just 10.
The Class-5 boy is one of more than 30 children at the primary school of Rawat village, 10 kilometres from Ludhiana, who are either engaged or married, out of a strength of 93. Even the grandson of the village sarpanch was married off at 14.
The parents of these children are cobblers mostly or in straw-item making, scrap dealing, and farm labour. Child marriage is in their tradition, and children are thrown into it as soon as they turn five. In some cases, both husband and wife read in the same class. The village has more girls but many of them are school dropouts.
Blame it on custom, poverty, insecurity, illiteracy, or the haste to see the wards settled down soon after they are born, but the villagers are okay with it. The marriages are never registered; it is always a small, informal, family affair. “Nothing illegal about it,” says Geeta, who got her nephew Karan (10) of Class 5 married off recently. “The girl is brought home only after she turns 18.”
The poor villagers are Sirkiband caste people that migrated from Pakistan. “We even marry off children as soon as they learn to take the first step. It’s our tradition and we must keep it even if the law doesn’t permit,” says Geeta. Sunny, who runs a tyre-repair shop also was married at 10 and he brought home his wife when she turned 18. “It reduced the burden on my parents,” he said.
Villager Darshan Singh said: “The average age to get engaged is 5 or 6. The tradition, however, is now on the decline. My three children are engaged but we will marry them after they complete higher education.” Another villager said this reform had come after the local authorities had raided one or two baraats. “Child marriages are now fewer and organised in hiding,” he said. Even in the neighbouring Khwajke, many of the students in Class 7 were married.