In the 257 years from the Battle of Plassey till date, Muslims and Hindus have only once reached a consensus, only once.
This was about 100 years ago. A demonstration was being held in the grounds of the judge court in Dhaka. Hindu leaders were present there, dhoti tails tucked into their carefully creased punjabi pockets. And the Muslim leaders were there too in their old achkan suits, musk-scented fragrance dabbed on their wrists and behind their ears. They were all there to protest against a decision of the government.
Young men and boys with barely a hint of a mustache on their upper lip had also gathered along the street to listen to them. The leaders of the two communities had put aside all difference and stood shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, united in their movement against the government. It was an issue of great importance. The sexual life of Bengali men depended upon their decision. It wasn`t politics, it wasn`t economy and it wasn`t any social principle; Hindu and Muslims had united on the question of sex.
In those days Bengali girls would be married off at an age of between seven to ten years, regardless of religion, caste or creed. In families where the guardians had some degree of sense, the bride would sleep with the mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law or widowed aunt until she was of age. But persons with sense and consideration have always been rare in the Bengali society. The bride in most cases would be forced into the boy`s room, for the sake of his peace of pleasure. Even if the young girls` cries would rend the skies, the in-laws would turn a deaf ear to it all.
It was in a lane of Kolkata, a densely populated locality. A healthy young man had married an eight-year-old girl, basically a child, and happily brought her home. The cruel guardians thrust her into the room with the young man. After a while the girl`s screams brought the neighbours rushing to the front of the house. Having no alternative, the family took her to Kolkata medical college where she expired the very next day. The news appeared in the newspapers. I think the boy and his parents received a light punishment.
The news caught the attention of the English rulers. They decided to prohibit the marriage of girls until their menstruation began. Why should Bengali men obey this cruel declaration? They were furious and broke out in protest.
A hundred years ago they didn`t have vehicles like us today or else they would have damaged cars, thrown petrol bombs to set buses on fire or tear up the railway tracks. What they did was hold protest meetings all over Bengal. One of these meetings was held at the judge court grounds in Dhaka. Hindus and Muslims joined alike. There was nothing sweeter in this world than a young girl bride.
Had the girl mentioned above died in silence like so many others, there wouldn`t have been a problem. But she created a problem by crying out aloud, bringing the neighbours forward. The guardians couldn`t say that their daughter-in-law had gone to the latrine in the night and was bitten by a snake. We have many snakes in our yard. We`ve been planning to call the snake charmer to get rid of them, but now our daughter-in-law has been bitten and died. Bengalis are expert at fabricating the truth. They force others to believe what they have to say.
The cabinet recently approved the draft of the Child Marriage Prevention Act-2014, where they proposed to bring down the marriageable age of a girl from 18 to 16 and of a boy from 21 to 18. In the existing law, a girl below 18 and a boy below 21 are not permitted to get married. But in the country, like all other laws, this law too is ignored. The moment they come of age, many guardians hurry to get them married off.
The Bengali nationalist government is inspired by Bengali poetry. This does not apply to cultural matters alone, but to political and administrative decision-making too. The word `sixteen` has been a favourite among Bengali poets down the ages. Our national poet, in his greatest piece of work wrote, “Ami shouroshir hridi-shoroshij prem uddyam, ami dhonnyi” which in essence means, “I am exhilarated in the youthful hearted love of sixteen, I am gratified.” So if the poet can have love and laughter with a 16-year-old, the Bengali nationalist grand alliance will not sit back and do nothing for the first-time young Bengali boys. That is why they have lowered the girls` permitted age of marriage to 16.
It is not just the lascivious Bengali men who lust after 16-year-old girls. The English are not much better. They use the term `sweet sixteen`. And our patriotic political leaders have a weakness for the number 16. Even general Niazi could never forget the number 16 till his death.
It wasn`t the BNP-Jamaat government that determined the minimum age of marriage for a girl to be 18, it was done by a government long before. The world over, below 18 is considered as a child. This is stated in the International Child Convention. Our grand alliance doesn`t just shun Khaleda Zia; it shuns Ban-Ki Moon and John Kerry as well.
I was worried that they may bring the minimum age of a girl for marriage down to 10. After all, when the greatest poet of Bengalis brought Bhabatarini, that is Mrinalini Devi, to his Jorasanko house, she was just 10. So a new law could very well be made to honour the poet.
The government is tireless when it comes to promulgating laws. There may be a law passed that a boy is to be circumcised at eight and then have the next 10 years to prepare for marriage.
The minimum age for marriage has been decided upon in principle. When the law is made it will include the matter of gaye holud [pre-wedding turmeric ceremony]. This will include directives about how many people will be invited to the gaye holud ceremony, how many kilos of sweets the groom`s side must bring, how much toll must be paid to student leaders of the local college, and other details. There will also be directives about the wedding ceremony and reception. Then there will be conditions regarding the marriage. If one side is a razakar, anti-independence and pro-Pakistani, the wedding will not be stopped. It just must be ascertained that the annual income of the razakar`s side is over 10 million taka!
The male members present at the cabinet-cum-advisory council meeting where the proposal for child marriage was unanimously taken up, will remember a Bengali proverb: “Bangali nari kuritei buri.” In other words, Bengali women are old at twenty. So they have the right to get them as brides four years before they become old women.
Now a Bengali woman will become a mother at the age of 16 years and nine months. She will be a mother of two at the age of 17 years 10 months. Like Mrinalini Devi, she will have four or five children by the time she reaches the age of 22. We can thus say that a Bengali girl will be a mother at 17, a mother-in-law at 33 and a grandmother at 34. At 50 years, she will see her grandchild getting married. At 51 she will be blessed with a great grandchild.
Bangladesh has a sparse population now. If the law for marrying at 16/18 is passed, the country will be filled with children. In 2021 the population will be 210 million. When the grand alliance fulfills its term in 2041, the population will be 410 million. The government is determined to fulfill the desires of all, from the government bureaucrats to the intellectuals. But it is fools like us who feel that before passing any law, it is essential to review the country`s geographic and socio-economic condition.
The government of change is busy changing the age of marriage and changing the names of ministries. And it is changing the definitions of essential factors in life: the definition of politics, the definition of democracy.