It was 5 am on Thursday morning when two social activists and volunteers of Child Line stationed themselves surreptitiously near the Annai Valainkanni Church in Chennai.
The activists, were present based on a tip off about a child marriage that was set to happen near Besant Nagar.
Anxious to not be spotted, they pretended to be joggers as they witnessed the two families arrive.
The bride, a 15-year-old school girl was made to stand beside a 29-year-old man, as none other than her father conducted the marriage. The group waited, observed the situation and collected evidence from the sidelines. And just before the crime could be committed, they swooped in on the ceremony and put an end to it.
"We stopped the groom from tying the 'thaali' around the young girl's neck and began asking for their age proof," says Enoch Moses, who led this operation. "They didn't have any valid certificates and tried to tell us that she was 18 years old. After much convincing, the girl told us she was only 15," he adds.
The activists took the two families with the help of the Shastri Nagar police to the Child Welfare Committee office.
"I had informed the Committee about the tip-off I received on Wednesday night. But instead of alerting the police, they told us to go stop the wedding ourselves. Even at the venue, the police didn't arrive till we called the DCP," alleges Enoch.
But despite crossing these hurdles, the activists' efforts went in vain. The family of the bride, the groom and others who aided this 'marriage' were all let off by the Commission, after they submitted a 'letter of apology'.
In 2014, Tamil Nadu, according to a media report quoting data from the NCRB, had the most number of marriages in which the Child Marriage Prohibition Act was invoked. According to the 2011 Census, Chennai topped the list in the state, with 5840 married girls under the age of 15. This was followed by Coimbatore with 3025 girls. Madurai, Tirunelveli and Salem all boasted of over 2000 child marriages.
These numbers, which should have shamed the State, seems to have had little impact on the ground, where these illegal ceremonies remain unchecked.
"I saw with my own eyes, the girl's relative threatened her to lie about her age. After that they told her to say that she will commit suicide, if asked questions. How can you let someone like this go?" asks the activist. "To make matters worse, the girl and her family went to the groom's house, even after submitting the apology letter. Who is to know if he forces himself upon her or if they solemnise the marriage now?"
The groom named Vinoth Kubendran, according to the Child Welfare Committee, is from Vyasarpaadi while the bride's family is from Thiruvenkadu in Nagapattinam District. Activists further allege that the bride's father, Ponnurangan, is a pastor who gives sermons in his village and neigbouring districts. Ponnurangan, reportedly panicked when the police arrived because his 'Central Government' job would be at stake if a case was filed against him. Vinoth's mother, meanwhile, works as a nurse in a Government hospital in Vandaloor, according to the volunteers.
The Thiruvanmyur police have not even filed a First Information Report. When asked about this, an officer in the station, told The News Minute, it was a 'family matter' and therefore nobody came up to file a case.
The Child Welfare Committee, meanwhile, defended the lack of action against the groom and family of the 15-year-old bride. "The ceremony wasn't completed and the marriage didn't actually happen, so we can't take action against them under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act," says Sheila Charles Mohan, a member of the Committee. She further went on to say, "See, they are from a Scheduled Tribe and it is in their culture to get their children married early. Moreover, the child seems to have been getting friendly with a boy, so naturally the parents will be worried. So, they wanted to get her married to her uncle."
When asked, if merely being let off with an apology letter will stop the crime of child marriage, the child welfare committee member said, “The media is largely responsible for child marriages. These children see all these films about love and do such things. In this case, we have warned the family and they will not pressurise her to get married till she is eighteen now."
Human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam, however, remains unconvinced by the Committee's explanation. "A technicality is being used here to define marriage itself. Yes, with that logic they can't be prosecuted under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, but they have attempted to commit an offence and can be punished for the same."
According to Section 511 of the IPC, anyone who attempts to commit an offence can be punished with imprisonment of any description provided by the offence, for a term which may extend to one half of the longest term of imprisonment provided for the crime.
With no case registered in the matter, as of now, activists claim the State has let the young girl down. "The 15-year-old has her 10th standard exams which begin on March 8th. What she needs now is counselling and to be kept away from a family that is forcing her to get married. She expressed a desire to study," says Enoch.
“How will the number of child marriages reduce, if committees meant to protect these children, remain lax about their futures?" he asks.