Co-presented by

Kill that witch: A national athlete's plight reveals the medieval side of Assam

By Nandita Sengupta

Guwahati: She was not just wrapped with fishing net, grabbed and overpowered by the head priest of a Naamghar (a community prayer hall) at Serekali village in central Assam’s Karbi Anglong district in broad day light, but was punched repeatedly while many others just looked on. The male priest grabbed her like a wrestler and rained blows till she managed to flee with injuries on her chest and back.

This visual of Debojani Bora, a veteran athlete, repeatedly aired by local news channels on Friday (October 17) left many in Assam shell-shocked. The 35-year-old javelin thrower, who won gold in the 2011 national masters, not only tried to escape from the clutch of the priest but even opened her cloth to show that "no witch" was within her as was suspected by the villagers. "A puja was performed in the village after some died in the past few months due to alcoholism and some elders identified a witch for the death and pronounced that the witch was in me. On Thursday afternoon they forcibly took to the yard of the naamghar and attacked me but none protested. Some young boys even recorded the visuals in their mobile phones," Debojani told a news channel, two days after the incident.

 Kill that witch: A national athletes plight reveals the medieval side of Assam

Mahim Madahi, a witch doctor (also known as ojha), performs a ritual in Uttarkuchi village in India's northeastern state of Assam. Image used for representational purposes. Reuters

She was admitted to a health centre for treatment before her husband Hiteswar Medhi, a farmer lodged an FIR at Dokmoka police station. The FIR charged two -— Radha Laskar (the priest) and Dilsen Medhi, who were soon arrested. Debojani had represented Assam in several athletic meets for veterans and won medals.

This was the second such incident in the village situated in the hilly district. A 60-year-old woman was beaten up by villagers similarly in August with the same charge of being a "witch".

The two women at Serekali village, about 200 kms from Guwahati, were among the lucky ones who managed to escape from the "witch hunt" attack. Many, however, over the years have been beheaded, thrashed to death or buried in villages in at least 12 of the 27 districts in Assam.

According to Assam State Legal Service Authority, "witch hunting" in Assam involved branding a woman as a witch or daini, mostly based on declaration by a ojha or bez (quack). This usually happens when villagers approach the village ojha with a chronic ailment and the ojha identifies a woman to be the source of the ailment and is branded as a daini or witch. The woman identified as a daini is dragged out and is subjected to inhuman torture in the form of beating, burying alive, paraded naked and even raped. The victim woman, if manages to survive is ostracised from the village and is dispossessed of her property.

"Sometimes the village leaders impose a heavy fine on the family of the woman in order to relieve her of her misdeeds towards her fellow villagers. Many incidents of witch hunting have been reported from the areas inhabited by people belonging to Adivasi community too," the authority said.

According to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Gauhati High Court in December 2013, a total 132 people, majority of whom were women, have been killed on suspicion being witches or practising black magic. The Assam CID informed the court that a total of 85 cases of witch hunting were reported from across the state since 2008 and about 500 people have been arrested so far. It said the incidents were reported in Kamrup, Goalpara, Nalbari, Sibasagar, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Nagaon, Bongaigaon, Dhemaji, Udalguri, Kokrajhar and Karbi Anglong district. The CID registered 10 cases in 2008 which increased to 29 in 2011, 14 in 2012 and 16 in 2013.

It is not only the women, many males in villages in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa district in Bodoland Territorial Area districts have even been branded as witches and were either killed or have been chased out of their villages on suspicion of practising witchcraft or black magic.

The PIL filed by Rajeeb Kalita, a Guwahati-based lawyer sought the court’s intervention to direct the Assam government for taking strong measures to prevent such incidents, stern action against those involved in such crime and rehabilitate the victims by setting up shelter homes.

"It is shameful that our government and civil society failed to prevent such inhuman incidents even as many have so far been killed or ostracised. There is a need of strong penal provision and at the same time those affected by the evil practice should properly be supported rehabilitated,” said civil rights lawyer in Guwahati, Bhaskar Dev Konwar, who appeared in the court for the petitioner.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Oct 22, 2014 11:34:25 IST