It’s 2016 But The Practice Of Witch-Hunting & Killing In The Name Of Superstition Still Persists In Assam
May 30, 2016
The classical period of witch hunting dates back to the 14th century when certain people were labelled as ’witches’ and executed across Europe, Africa and Asia. The victims included Joan of Arc who was burnt alive at the tender age of 19 at the stake for heresy on May 30, 1431.
In India, witch hunting dates back hundreds of years. It emanated in the Morigaon district of Assam which is now infamously known as the ‘Indian Capital of Black Magic’. People from far-flung areas would come here to learn ’witchcraft’. Even today, witch hunting is being practiced in the State and has become a burning issue, where predominantly women fall prey to this heinous crime.
What is witch hunting?
Witch hunter (photo) BCCL
Witch hunting involves the 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 a 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 some cases their hair is cut off and the victim and their children are socially ostracised and even put to death.
The practice of witch hunting is also connected to the prevalence of patriarchal attitudes and an opposition to women’s rights over property. Lack of education and health services have contributed to the continuation of this antiquated practice of witch hunting.
The fact that witch hunting has been making headlines in all local newspapers of Assam for quite some time, is not only disturbing but also alarming.
According to some reports, about 1,000 women have been killed across India in the past decade for "practising witchcraft". According to the Assam Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rockybul Hussain, at least 77 persons were killed and 60 others were injured in witch hunting incidents across Assam since 2010, and 35 of them were women. Though official cases have been filed against witch hunters, not much progress has been made due to absence of witnesses.
What are the motives of witch hunters?
Some cases that were reported bore testimony to the fact that the witch killings were an act of the Land Mafia. Miscreants use social superstitions to uproot families from the land they have an eye on and later acquire their property at throwaway prices. Even the police have claimed that some alleged witch killings were nothing more than murders.
Another motive is the brainchild of the Ojaa and Beez, who con people and make a living by providing medication to the villagers for several diseases. Due to the lack of development and unavailability of doctors in the villages, the villagers have no choice but to rely on the Ojaas, who eventually fleece the poor.
Some even use witch hunting as a sexual motive
Education and medical care in rural areas is an urgent necessity to drive out this mess. Moreover, civil societies, medical bodies, educational bodies, the police and local bodies have to work hand-in-hand to educate people and make them aware.
The Assam government had launched a project ’Prahari’ in 2001 to curb the practices of witch-hunting. Under Prahari, regular health camps are organised. Through qualified experts, villagers are imparted knowledge about health and hygiene and local women are trained.
On May 8, 2015, the Assam state assembly unanimously passed Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, in a bid to eliminate rising cases of superstition leading to the murder of so-called "witches". This Act provides for more effective measures to prevent and protect persons from witch hunting practices and helps eliminate their torture, oppression, humiliation and killing by a section of the society.
The Act prohibits a person from committing witch hunting or witchcraft with the intent to cause injury or harm to another person.
Moreover, the Act prohibits the practice of witch doctors that cause injury and harm. The Act now recognises all cases of witch-hunting as non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable. A person practicing witchcraft would be heavily penalised. The punishment for leading a person to commit suicide after intimidating, stigmatising, defaming and accusing as a ‘witch’ may be extended to life imprisonment and fine up to Rs 5 lakh. The Act also talks about various measures that the administration and police need to initiate along with NGOs and civil society to educate people about witch hunting.
[photo] Birubala Rabha Rediff
Birubala Rabha, a tribal woman from Assam, has been crusading against witch-hunting since the 1980s , when her son was called a ’witch’ owing to his mental illness and put through periods of misery. She decided to change the course of events by herself. On 4th July 2015, her efforts were recognised and she was awarded the 12th Upendra Nath Brahma Soldier of Humanity in Kokrajhar.
In spite of the above, this crime still persists in Assam. The state needs not just one but several Birubalas to stand up and fight against this heinous crime.