The Jalna police recently arrested two brothers, Sheikh Khaled and Mohammad Ali Sheikh Mehboob on charges of kidnapping two “underage” cousins and forcing them into marriage. The arrests were made on a complaint filed by the parents of one of the girls.
The police insist that the girls, Poonam and Rita — since sent home to their families — have been medically tested and are underage, despite proof being available of the girls being major at the time of their marriage. A school transfer certificate issued to Poonam shows her date of birth as September 11, 1993. Rita's birth certificate and school leaving certificate show she was born on September 7, 1992. When they got married on February 2 this year, Poonam and Rita were 18 and 19 respectively. Both have PAN cards which reflect these dates of birth. Indeed, in the FIR he lodged with the police, Poonam's father, Ramesh Chandan, entered her age as 20, which the police later said was a mistake.
Jalna superintendent of police Sanjay Mohite said over the phone on Thursday that on February 22, Poonam and Rita eloped and got married to Sheikh Khaled, 23, and Sheikh Mehboob, 26. They also converted to Islam and started living in Washim, near Akola. While in Washim, the girls sent affidavits to the local police asking them not to take cognisance of any complaints by the parents. They said they were old enough to marry, had not been coerced by the boys or anyone else and had voluntarily converted to Islam.
The police used the affidavits to track down the couples. On April 5, the police arrested Khaled and Mehboob. Mr. Mohite told The Hindu that after their husbands were picked up, the girls were sent for medical examination which showed they were juveniles. Thereafter they were taken to the local child welfare committee and kept in an observation home. The Akola police escorted them back to Jalna and produced them before the local child welfare committee which handed them over to their families on April 10.
Mr. Chandan lodged a missing persons complaint on February 22, and later filed an FIR at the Kadim police station. He said Rita had left home on February 22, saying she was going to pay her examination fees. She did not return home, nor did Poonam who had accompanied her. Later the families of the girls realised that the two boys in question were also missing from their homes. Mr. Chandan named the two boys and accused them of kidnapping the girls and luring them into marriage. He named their elder brother Salim and a cousin, Nadeem, as co-conspirators. The police immediately arrested Salim and Nadeem.
Investigating officer sub-inspector Dilip Tejalkar said all the four arrested were produced in court on Thursday and remanded in police custody till April 17. Asked about Mr. Chandan mentioning his daughter's age as 20 in the FIR, Mr. Tejalkar said it was a mistake and the families had produced the correct birth records which showed the girls to be a little over 16. “They are juveniles,” Mr. Tejalkar told The Hindu over the phone from Jalna.
The father of the two boys apparently knew about the affair. The two couples did intend to get married at some stage but it happened all of a sudden, said a source who knows the family. The boys' family and their neighbourhood seemed deeply upset by the arrests, and there was much talk of victimisation by right wing groups like “Love Jihad” and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Mr. Tejalkar said there was no evidence yet on this count.
Activists from the area who did not wish to be named, said inter-community marriages were increasingly being misprojected as forced marriages especially to target the Muslim community. And even as the girls' birth records clearly indicate they are of an age to decide their fate, the police are relying on some dubious documents produced by the parents to prove the girls are underage.