02-08 Jul, 2013
small world
Child Marriage
Knot a Sensible Thing to Do

NEW DELHI ~ The Kerala government has just brought down the minimum age of marriage for Muslim girls to 16. A circular stating this was issued in response to the director of the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) demanding clarity on whether marriages of Muslim girls below the age of 18 should be registered. KILA had been getting a number of complaints from Muslim parents about local authorities unwilling to do so.

Registrars and panchayats were within their rights to not register such marriages. Besides the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006, there is also a Supreme Court judgment that states that 18 is the minimum age of marriage for women, no matter what personal laws say.

There are a number of reasons speculated for such a regressive order being passed. Some say this is a move to shift attention from a sex scandal involving two of the chief minister’s personal staff members. They had been removed after allegations of bestowing favours on a woman who runs a company that sets up solar panels.

The Opposition has predictably demanded the withdrawal of the order, but even ministers are unable to explain the rationale behind it. “The responsibility of this order lies with the law department,” says MK Muneer, leader of the Indian Union Muslim League and Minister for Social Welfare. He, in fact, holds the view that the age of marriage should be revised to 21 for both sexes. But he does not oppose this order, saying that the law is ambiguous in this regard. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 does not explicitly say that all marriages under 18 will be considered illegal. A marriage is void only under certain circumstances, like using deceitful means or force.

Surprised at the uproar, the state government has already started working on damage control. Sources say another circular will soon be issued instructing local authorities not to consider the previous order. But how this can be done without cancelling the earlier order, no one can explain.

Sex, Lies and Gossip

Somewhere in the late 1990s, there began a rumour that Salman Khan was HIV positive. During the same time, it was said that Shah Rukh Khan was bisexual. One reporter was even brave enough to ask him that in an interview. There were also things said about Amitabh Bachchan which were so salacious that they cannot be repeated. All such gossip met their predictable end as other new startling information took their place.

Some of these make it to the gossip pages. Film stars don’t get upset because it is a familiar evil, the price of fame. They don’t worry about it being true either. If ever there was any grain of reality in it, it was lost long back in Chinese whispers. Gossip, however, has its rules. It is in that vague territory between fact, fiction and fantasy. It could be any of the three or all three together. It is often strategically exploited by publicists to promote a movie. Sometimes it is deliberately spread by enemies. So long as everyone accepts it as gossip, the game can continue without complaint.

The rules changed slightly for Shah Rukh recently. A newspaper ran an item saying that he and wife Gauri were expecting a boy through surrogacy. They didn’t name Shah Rukh but left enough indicators to make it clear who they were talking about. Gossip items, especially those involving superstars, also share the characteristic of being shamelessly picked up and regurgitated by other publications. This, too, was lifted and he was now named.

Someone noticed that the child was not born and the sex had been mentioned. Then it was just inference that there must have been pre-natal testing done, which is illegal in India. An activist who runs a NGO campaigning against sex determination tests filed a complaint with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. She claimed to have proof obtained through sources that the tests were done at Jaslok Hospital. BMC officials went to Shah Rukh’s residence. What they were hoping to do there besides taking an autograph is unclear. He was not home and they returned. The Indian Medical Association and the Indian Radiological and Imaging Association have made statements condemning Shah Rukh. A fatwa has been issued against him. Newspapers abroad have also written about it. From a tidbit about a rumour, it had made its journey into legitimacy.

When writing on gossip, the normal rigours of journalism—attribution and substantiation—don’t apply. That is why they never make it to the front pages, no matter how juicy the news. For example, just before the stories about Shah Rukh’s third child, there was gossip floating about that he had left his wife for Priyanka Chopra. That is big news by any measure. But no one printed it because the probability of it being false is huge. There is however a substantial difference in how the surrogacy story is being treated. Even if there is no evidence, substantiation or attribution for the pre-natal testing, the hysterics around it seems real and loud. And so it makes its jump to becoming proper news. It is like a self-fulfilling slander—because medical bodies and NGOs are protesting, it must be true.

So long as there is nothing to show pre-natal testing was done, it is just common sense to assume innocence. That is why organisations like the Indian Medical Association should consider their own conduct in taking as gospel truth what most people instinctively understand to be banter. Or at least they need to make enquiries and get some proof before jumping into the cheap-publicity bandwagon. Meanwhile, Jaslok Hospital and the IVF specialist accused of conducting the test have said they have had nothing to do with Shah Rukh. The activist is yet to produce the proof she claimed to have. That this should happen is not surprising. How often have we seen this farce playing out, and not just with superstars—hurl a wild accusation at someone and then make it his or her onus to prove that it is false.

Don’t Bet on Winning This Prize

Mathematics has a way of keeping its patrons indulged for ridiculously extended periods of time, on problems that are incredibly easy to state. June 23 marked the 20th anniversary of Andrew Wiles’ proof of the Fermat’s Last Theorem (FLT), on which he spent six years of his life. FLT states that An+Bn=Cn has no solutions for n>2, where A, B and C are positive integers. Ironically, no sooner had Wiles announced his proof, a banker by the name of Andrew (double irony) Beal, while studying the generalizations of the theorem, made a conclusion in the same year which we today know as Beal’s conjecture, and which to-date remains unproved and unchallenged. Beal’s conjecture states that if Ax+By=Cz, where A, B, C, x, y, and z are positive integers with x, y, z > 2, then A, B, and C have a common prime factor (a factor which is only divisible by itself and 1). FLT can be restated as a special case of the Beal’s conjecture with x=y=z. American Mathematical Society (AMS) has now announced a prize worth $1,000,000 for a proof or a counter example to the Beal’s conjecture. It took 358 years’ worth of effort for the ghost of Pierre de Fermat to finally find peace, after the final and complete proof of his conjecture was published in 1995. How long will Beal, who is 60, have to wait?