Witch-Hunting In Northeast
The evil practice of witchcraft claiming innocent lives, especially in the tribal populations of northeast, has been grabbing media headlines from time to time. Shib Shankar Chatterjee delves deep into the practice, committed primarily with an eye to grab land of the victims
“In our village, a boy had been suffering from some ailments for several months. He confided to his parents that he dreamt of some witches, including myself, who had been harassing him. His parents narrated the incident to other villagers. Hearing upon this, the villagers flew into a rage and attacked us. They beat us black and blue. Later, they torched our houses. The mob, subsequently, hacked to death three members of a family, including one-and-a-half-year-old child on July 3, 2001,” narrated Sura Hembram, who hails from Saharpur village under Basugaon Police Station of Kokrajhar district in Assam.
“My stepbrother and I had inherited our land after the death of my father. In a bid to capture the property, my stepbrother in collusion with other persons branded me a witch. One day, some villagers began to torture me. They even buried me with an intention to kill me, but I escaped,” said Subhadra Basumatary of Silapara village under Dudhnoi police station of Goalpara district in Assam.
Witch-hunt or witch-slaughter is now one of the most brutal deeds. Several reasons play dominant role behind this inhuman practice. Poverty, illiteracy, superstition, fear are the reasons behind witchery. But the most heartrending cause is the voracious attitude of the relatives or near and dear ones to gulp his or her property.
The so-called witches are very unfortunate inhabitants of villages, who knew the art of healing a few common diseases but when they fail to cure, they are termed witches. Sometimes, when any epidemic breaks out, the mischievous persons seize chance and try to exterminate her or him.
Today, human being lives in an age, where science and technology lords over anything. The human being and his society have won victory over superstitions, religious bigotry and worn-out believes.
Yet the people cannot shake off the idea of hating and killing the so-called witches. These deserted men and women, who people call witches, know different arts of healing diseases. These men and women are generally acquainted with ‘black-art’. They know some magical fits or enchantments by means of which they help overcome some domestic problems.
The incidents of witch-hunting take place in remote villages bereft of good medical facility, sanitation system, roads, schools et cetera.
“This is a dangerous trend. Shortage of doctors, nurses and the Primary Health Centre or Public Health Centre in remote or rural areas compelled the tribal clans to rely or trust on kabiraj (exorcist or sorcerer, locally called ojha or baiga) and also the quack, who on failure to cure serious diseases, put the blame on witchcraft and numbers of tonhi or witch”, explained Promila Rani Brahma, a prominent woman Bodo leader and the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Kokrajhar (East) in Assam.
“We have taken a special initiative against this particular social evil and in this context we have received massive responses from every class of people of these areas of Northeast. Our organisation All Bodo Women’s Welfare Federation (ABWWF) had already planned and launched a vigorous campaign in Bodo villages against this wicked practice done by a section of exorcists and quacks …”, stated one of the activist-cum-advisor of the ABWWF, Karan Basumatary.
On the other hand, Jyotsna Chaterjee, an activist of the New Delhi-based Women’s Non Governmental Organisation claimed, “The patriarchal society is reluctant to give women their property rights and the widows are regularly killed after being called witches”.
She further revealed, “Their standard excuse seems to be that it is a family dispute and there is no need to take the matter to court. In most cases, the women targeted were either widows or older single women and therefore, more vulnerable. The belief in the existence of witches is strong and deep-rooted, especially in tribal communities. Older women, especially widows are supposed to have an evil eye and are considered inauspicious. The practice reflects the low status of women, particularly widows”.
But, the National Commission for Women (NCW) had mooted introduction of a subject relating to ‘<Dayan Pratha>’ or witchcraft in the syllabus of primary education in Assam. The idea behind introducing Dayan Pratha in the curricula of primary schools is to bring about awareness from an early age to do away with the primitive practice of witch hunting based on superstitious beliefs, according to the Neeva Konwar, member of NCW of Assam State chapter, who also claimed that witch-hunting is like an infectious disease spreading to newer areas. The chairperson of NCW of the Assam State chapter, Mridula Saharia, wanted the need for better medical, educational, drinking water, sanitation and transportation facilities and mass awareness in remote rural areas to eradicate the evil practice. The women cell and mahila panchayet pradhan should be activated at village panchayet and district headquarters level of the states to tackle the evil.
“Even, the Church with close bonding with the tribals and the adibashis has preferred to keep away from the sensitive subject. We have made clear our objection to witch-hunting or witch-burning issue,” disclosed Justin Lakra, a former Adibashi Santhal Students’ leader and Rajen Horo, who is still an activist of Adibashi Student’s organisation of Assam.
The killing of women suspected of being witches is a frequent phenomenon in the parts of northeastern and Central India.
On the other hand, on December 7, 2009, Assam cabinet minister (Panchayat & Rural Development, Environment & Forest), Rokybul Hussain stated in the Assembly that around 50 innocent citizens had lost their lives at the hands of public on suspicion of practising black magic since 2006-2007 to September 2008-2009. The minister again mentioned on July 18, 2011, that as many as 40 people were killed in witch-hunting cases in Assam during the year 2009 to 2011.
But, the interesting fact is that chairperson of Assam State Commission for Women (IASCW) Mridula Saharia revealed on June 14, 2011, “In Kokrajhar district, since 2001 to till date, about 61 people had been victims of this superstitious practice, out of which 39 were Bodo Tribe community while 22 belonged to the Adibashi Santhal society. Of the total killings, 23 were male and 38 were female. The most shameful facet of this development is the involvement of an entire community in such ‘murders’, according to Assam Government official reports”.
As it has become a chronic practice among the villagers in this 21st century, even organsiation like – All Bodoland Territorial Areas District Gaonbura Association of Bodo Territorial Autonomous & District Council (BTADC) of Assam, strongly condemned demanding, “Though it has become a serious problem in certain communities, especially among Bodos, Adibashi Santhal, Rabhas, Garos, Khashia, Jaintia in eastern states, on the other side, it is also prevalent in states like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, including Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Odisha and West Bengal. Therefore, the state governments should take major steps to stop this evil practice at any cost without any further delay”.
“Because, on April 27, 2011, the incident that occurred in the evening at Mawlai Phudmuri hamlet of East Khashi Hills District in Meghalaya was really heartrending, where fatal mob attacked a family for practising Men-ai-Ksuid (witchcraft). Though, the members of that family escaped, astonishing fact was that it happened just adjoining the residence of Meghalaya Urban Affairs Minister. Hundreds of residents of the areas alleged that the family was practising witchery. It is a fact that in Meghalaya, superstition about witchcraft and attack on alleged practitioners were common, especially in the rural areas. Myth about the Snake Vampire (Thlen) and its worshippers Menshohnoh is quite common in Khasi-Jaintia Hills, where most of the people are literate”, said a local journalist R Das of Tura, the headquarters of West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya.
The most terrible fact is that even a section of MLAs or political leaders are directly and indirectly involved in this impious activity. On January 22, 2013, the Gauhati High Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to examine the alleged involvement of Congress MLA, now a Cabinet minister in Assam government, Khorsing Engti, in a land grabbing attempt in Karbi Anglong district of Assam in 2010.
Though, the honourable court was monitoring the above case, the court asked the investigating agency to submit the report within three months. The court had also asked the Superintendent of Police (SP) to give protection to the victim’s family members, who were being harassed and threatened by miscreants on several occasions. The incident related to an occurrence, when Radhika Shah and her sister Gayatri Shah of Karbi Anglong district alleged that miscreants with the help of some locals physically and mentally tortured and later tried to kill them in the name of witch-hunting to grab their land, located adjacent to a plot owned by the minister. The victims also alleged that local police turned a blind eye, when they were being beaten up, made to consume human excreta and even undressed before the villagers, apart from damage to their property.
Presently, in India, every social, cultural and religious group raises a hue and cry against this particular evil. The Asam Xatra Mahasabha has decided to organise janajagaran sabhas (mass awareness campaigns) across the state against killings in the name of witch-hunting. The president of the Mahasabha, Leela Mahanta said, “Mahapurush Srimanta Shankardev, the most fascinating personality, saint and saviour, who was the founder of this Xatra, an abode of prayer, peace and prosperity, had tried to begin social reforms and it is xatras bounden duty to guide society towards the right path and do away with such wicked practice of killing people just on the basis of suspicion”. Even, Jadab Chandra Bora, the cultural secretary of Asam Samanita Yuba Tirtha, the youth wing of the Mahasabha, said that they would extend full support to the proposed initiative, especially in the areas inhabited by various tribal communities and tea tribes of Assam, where in the name of black magic, people are mercilessly butchered.
The NGOs and other groups of Northeast, especially in Assam have demanded a high-level inquiry into the recent killings of Bodo tribe people in the name of witchcraft practice.
The Bodoland Regional Apex Weavers’ and Artisans’ Cooperative Federation, Maloti Rani Narzary, who was a former leader of All Bodo Women’s Welfare Federation strongly condemned the killings and demanded that the killers be brought to book in the witch-hunt case.
Even around 1500 BC, the practice of witchcraft finds mention in the Veda. Witchcraft practice in the eastern states, like Bihar and Jharkhand has social, religious and political patronage. Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC), an NGO, working against witchcraft, took the initiative to enact legislation for the Prevention of Witchcraft Act, 1999, in Bihar to wipe out the malpractice.
(All pics by Shib Shankar Chatterjee)