Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Wednesday referred to Hindus as “our people” in a bid to counter allegations that the state police’s recent crackdown on child marriages was targeted at Muslims.

The chief minister made the comment in the state Assembly while replying to the vote of thanks on the governor’s speech.

“Since you people [Opposition MLAs] will mind, we picked up more of our people,” Sarma said. That’s why I asked the Dibrugarh SP to pick up some from there...So that they can’t get the chance of communinalisation.”

Dibrugarh district in Upper Assam has a Hindu-majority population.

Since February, the Assam government has undertaken a statewide crackdown on child marriages. The police have been filing cases under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act against men who have married girls below 14 years of age, and under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act against those who married girls aged 14-18.

On Wednesday, Sarma claimed that the ratio of arrests of Muslims and Hindus since the crackdown started has been 55:45. As per the 2011 Census, Hindus comprised 61.47% of Assam’s population, while Muslims make up 34.22%.

The chief minister said that data from the National Family Health Survey-5 showed that the rates of child marriage were the highest in the Muslim-majority districts of Dhubri and South Salmara, and not in Hindu-majority districts such Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.

Hundreds of women in Assam have been protesting against the arrests and the police action against their family members. The mass arrests have led to a space crunch in existing jails.

Police data seen by Scroll shows that districts with high Muslim populations have seen more arrests than others. The districts of Biswanath, Barpeta, Baksa, Dhubri, Hojai, Bongaigaon and Nagaon districts have all recorded over 100 arrests each.

Many activists have said the police crackdown is short-sighted as it does not address the structural reasons such as poverty and illiteracy behind underage marriages.

Muslims living in ‘most peaceful atmosphere ever’: CM

Sarma also claimed on Wednesday that Muslims in the state are currently living in the “most peaceful atmosphere” ever, PTI reported. He said that the community is benefiting from development work such as the construction of roads, houses and colleges.

The chief minister accused the Opposition of “shedding crocodile tears” for minorities and not doing anything for them when they were in power.

“Today if someone honestly asks how many minority people in Assam have died of communal attacks, you people keep talking about encounters,” Sarma said. Are encounters something that gets done deliberately? Communal attacks are deliberate… If someone brings out their revolver, only then will the police bring out their revolver.”

Since Sarma became the chief minister of the state in May 2021, Assam has seen a number of police shootings. An affidavit submitted by the Assam government to the Gauhati High Court said that 171 such incidents between May 2021 and August 2022 took place in the state. It also said 56 people had died and 145 were injured in police action.

Many of those injured and killed belonged to the state’s ethnic and religious minorities. A number of shootings also took place in the course of a police crackdown on drugs, which has been championed by the government.

On Wednesday, Sarma also told the Assembly that eviction drives in Assam are being carried out mostly on the basis of court orders and as per laws enacted during Congress regimes.

“Just as the Congress had exempted the tribals from eviction from forest lands while making the law, they should have included people of minority community also or those affected by erosion, etc,” he said.

Sarma said that population explosion is the real reason behind increasing pressure on land, according to PTI. “Eviction is not the real problem,” he said. “Population explosion is the real issue and if we can’t control it, pressure over land will continue.”