Witch-hunting in Assam: A stringent law is the need of the hour to curb the practice

A legal deterrent is the need of the hour to rid Assam of witch-hunting, say activists like Birubala Raha

Kangkan Acharyya April 23, 2017 12:11:16 IST
Witch-hunting in Assam: A stringent law is the need of the hour to curb the practice

Jamila Rabha wept as she touched her brother’s feet to beg pardon for an offence she said she'd never committed. It was a moment of agony — one that reminded her she was a woman, and hence doomed to fail in asserting her rights as an individual in a patriarchal society.

Rabha, who belongs to a tribal community of Assam, was accused of witchcraft  by family members after she claimed her right to her ancestral property. She was among the more than 35 women who were saved by the NGO ‘Mission Birubala’ from being hunted as  witches.

Branding someone a witch is not a serious offence as per prevailing laws. So to ensure the victim's safety even without any legal protection, the NGO sometimes has to make peace between the victim and the perpetrators. In such compromise deals, the women victims often have to stoop to survive.

In this case, Rabha had to beg her brother — the perpetrator — to pardon her, so that she would get to live in her ancestral home without being called a witch anymore.

The incident that took place in the Goalpara district of Assam in 206 certainly wasn't an isolated one.

Birubala Rabha, the crusader against witch-hunting in Assam who is also the leader of the NGO, told Firstpost that nearly 20 cases of witch hunting has been reported over the last two years.

“Most of the recent cases have taken place in the areas populated by the tea garden labourers,” she said.

In an age of stupendous advancements in science and technology, 12 persons have been killed in Assam over the last two years, on suspicion of being witches as per data provided by Mission Birubala.

Witch-hunting  is a horrendous superstitious practice prevalent in rural India. The New York Times video that narrates the story of Jamila Rabha mentions that nearly 2,000 persons have been killed in India in the last 15 years in cases of witch hunting and most of the victims were women.

Says Dr Natyabir Das, an activist associated with Mission Birubala, "Sometimes more than one unfortunate incident takes place in a single village. People in  the grip of superstition tend to believe that such incidents are outcomes of witchcraft by witches and  seek help from ‘oja’, ‘bez’ or witch-doctors, who sometimes identify a person in the  village as the witch and the culprit behind the incidents."

Kula Saikia, special director general of Police (Law and Order) Assam, told Firstpost that health issues in rural areas also often lead to witch-hunting.

“Village folks have a tradition of visiting a witch doctor when they fall ill rather than seeking advice from qualified health practitioners, who in turn tell them that disease is an outcome of witch craft, after which the hunt for the witch begins,” he said.

As per this report, witch hunting involves branding of victims, especially women as witches, either after an observation made by an ‘ojha’ or ‘bej’ or a witch doctor. The victim who is branded as witch is subjected to numerous forms of torture, beatings, burns, paraded naked through the village, forced to eat human excrement and sometimes even raped.

In many cases, persons named as witches are lynched by villagers.

As per records available with Mission Birubala, more than 400  persons have been killed in Assam during the period from 2007 to 2014 in cases of witch-hunting.

Since witchcraft is a part of Assam’s traditional belief system, witch-hunting or killing of ‘witches’ cannot be attributed to a single community or geographical location of the state. Even the Kamrup (Metropolitan) district, of  which Guwahati city constitutes a major part, has also witnessed such incidents time to time.

Superstitious traditions find a suitable breeding ground in Assam, not only because of illiteracy among the people, but because of their historical fascination with black magic. Mayong, in the Morigaon district of Assam, for instance, is believed to be the hub of black-magic and witch-craft.

According to traditional beliefs a ‘bez’ or ‘oja’ from Mayong can turn a human being into an animal and vice-versa in a matter of few seconds.

Unscrupulous elements have found ways to use this belief system for their vested interests.

Kula Saikia said that witch-hunting is often used as a tool to assert domination in property feuds, personal rivalry, and to crush new power centres in a village.

“There are instances of witch-hunting being used against families who have newly emerged as powerful, challenging the existing power structure of  villages,” he adds.

Debojani Bora, a national level athlete in Assam, was  branded a witch in 2014 at Serakani village in Karbi Anglong district of Assam.

“She was not just wrapped with a fishing net, grabbed and overpowered by the head priest of a Naamghar (a community prayer hall) at Serakani 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,” wrote Nandita Sengupta in Firstpost narrating the horrific torture the victim went through.

Bora, a gold medal winning javelin thrower, was about to participate in another national sports event, before she was attacked. “The incident was the outcome of personal enmity,” her husband Hiteswar Medhi said to The Telegraph.

Explaining why women often become victims of witch-hunting, Dr Natyabir Das said that allegations of sorcery are brought against them to deprive them of their rights to their family property.

Witchhunting in Assam A stringent law is the need of the hour to curb the practice

A meeting held by Mission Birubala

“Asserting patriarchal dominance over family property is often the reason behind witch hunting. In such cases family members begin calling the woman a witch. Later on superstitious beliefs and rumors are spread among the villagers about the woman in connivance with witch doctors,” says Dr Das.

He also adds that victims are thrown out of their homes, treated as outcasts by the villagers and even killed.

“There are also instances where women are accused of sorcery after they deny men sex," Dr Das says. Many young widows go through this ordeal, when men they've rejected accuse them of being a witch.

Adding that patriarchy plays a major part in branding of women as witches Dr Das says that even older women are not spared. “These wise women normally command respect from the women folk in village. But they get victimised, as they create a support system for the women folks during the time of pregnancy and illness, challenging the dominance of the male quacks in the village,” he said.

Sometimes even men become victims of witch-hunting, and these cases too, can usually be traced to property related feuds.

In 2015, a state minister — Rockybul Hussain — told the Assembly that 93 cases of witch-hunting were reported and 77 persons (including 35 women) were killed during 2010 to 2015.

But Dr Natyabir Das says the numbers are far higher than reported.

“Many murders do not get recorded as cases of witch-hunting in government files, but going as per incidents reported in the press, the figures of cases related to witch-hunting are normally four times more than what has  been recorded by the  government machinery,” he says.

The huge number of such cases underline the need for a stringent law in states like Assam  to deter the deadly superstitious practice, which is still not available.

“We need a powerful  law that sees branding someone a witch as a serious offence, as provisions of the Indian Penal  Code cannot fulfill this demand,” says Dr Das.

In 2015, the Assam Assembly passed The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act/Bill. But the Bill has reportedly been referred back by the Ministry of  Home Affairs for review.

“It is going to take another two years to pass the bill. Why should the state government take so much time for the review?” asks Dr Das.

Witchhunting in Assam A stringent law is the need of the hour to curb the practice

Birubala Raha has become the face of the anti-witch hunting crusade in Assam

Though the heinous practice of witch-hunting in  Assam has been going on for ages, it remained mostly unreported. This changed in 2001 when Kula Saikia unearthed a major incident in the remote parts of Kokrajhar district, where five persons were killed after being branded 'witches' in one night.

“Till that time people were not very aware of these crimes. They were seen in the same light with other cases of murders,” said Kula Saikia.

The reportage of this social evil ignited movements to curb it. Saikia was the first to introduce a new movement named Project Prohori in Kokrajhar district.

“It was felt that only law and order enforcing agencies could not adequately tackle such social crimes. It required the participation of women groups, students’ organisations, science clubs, health workers. The objective of Project Prohori was basically a collaboration of different stake holders of society to fight against the menace,” he said. "Apart from creating awareness among masses against this social evil, Project Prohori was  initiated to channel the community bond and energy towards constructive purposes. In witch-hunting, a community gets involved in killing human beings. The project attempts to transform this collective strength to constructive activities, such as building bridges and roads."

A number of bridges, roads have been built and water canals dug up in the 100 villages in which Project Prohori is extended as a state-level police project.

The initiative attained much success in curbing the menace of witch-hunting and is a case study as a model of ‘change management’ in the Harvard Business Review. Project Prohori is also taught as a social innovation model in various B-Schools including IIM(A),INSEAD Singapore and International School of Business India.

Reiterating the need for an anti-witch hunting law, Kula Saikia, who was also one of the architects of  the Bill passed in the Assam Assembly said, “Like any other legislation, it is expected that this would also take care of different parameters evolving during implementation at the field level. However, since the problem of witch-hunting is based on age old customs and beliefs, apart from case to case issues, a combined approach at the societal level gains prominence.”

Stating that cases of witch-hunting are quite different from other murder cases, he says that a majority of the villagers participate in the crime and hence it becomes difficult to find witnesses.

Asserting that a law needs to be implemented as soon as possible, Birubala Rabha says a legal deterrent is the need of the hour to rid Assam of witch-hunting.

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