In 2016, India celebrated the Olympic medals brought home by PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. But women who make unconventional choices like becoming sportspersons do not always get rewarded. Assam's Debjani Bora, who has won gold at the national level for her javelin throws, was targeted as a witch in 2014 in the state and assaulted, of all the places, in a community prayer hall. Debjani's case puts into question one of the biggest myths around witch-hunting, that it takes place only due to superstition, ignorance and lack of education in far-flung remote villages, and among poor, uneducated people. Superstition might be one of the causes of branding women as witches and the subsequent attacks on them, but talking to one survivor after another, or the families of those who succumbed, brings to light many incidents that have been perpetrated with clear motivation and deliberate planning.
While not the only one, Assam is one state where witch-hunting cases have been taking place for years; it is also the state in the northeast with the lowest gender development index. Witch-hunting in Assam is supposedly more common among the Rabha, Hajong, Mishing, Bodo and other tribal groups. Women are not the only targets but it is worth noting, as shared by Chitralekha Barua of North East Network (NEN), a women's rights group based in Guwahati, that when men are targeted, their wives also get embroiled by association. On the other hand, if a woman is supposed to be practising witchcraft, it is considered possible that she may be doing so without the knowledge of her family. That is why at times the spouses or families of such women, in trying to protect themselves, dissociate themselves from the woman who is then left to fend for herself. A report by the organisation Partners in Law and Development (PLD), taking into account data from different states, says that 86 per cent of the primary targets of witch-hunting are women, and of these most fall in the age group of 40-60 years. So not just those women who are typically seen as vulnerable, such as single women and widows, but also the ones 'secure' in their marital families face the threat of witch-hunting. In a study focusing on witch-hunting in Assam, PLD also discovered that in 12 out of the 16 cases they were examining the victims had had no formal education.
The Making of a Witch
Women have been the face of evil in fairy tales and folklores for centuries, like Tejimola's evil stepmother in one of Assam's folktales. There are male ghosts too but in literature or motion pictures, the fear invoked by the woman with supernatural powers remains unmatched. Power in men is supposed to be a part of their natural being. There is a matter-of-factness about it. But women are inherently supposed to be defenceless and fragile. For them to have strong powers is an aberration. At times they are allowed to be wonder women, in ways that retain their attractiveness under the male gaze. But more frequently media and mythology suggest that they tend to get consumed by their own prowess more often than men. It is Eve who has to bite into the apple for all hell to break loose.
There are many ways in which this mystery, and then mistrust, around women's capabilities gets built. In villages or cities, when there are programmes to raise awareness around reproductive issues men would keep out of it or would be asked to stay out. What happens is that instead of understanding there is fear or contempt for the reproductive capabilities of women's bodies. One woman was targeted as a witch because during her menstruation she noticed some other emissions and when she went to a doctor about it, it became a matter of public knowledge and, soon, fear.
Then there is this hostility towards the hungry woman. She is the antonym to the woman who starves and fasts for others in the family and never says she is hungry even if she is malnourished. A woman who acknowledges this hunger and wants it satiated becomes a witch who feeds on the flesh and blood of others to strengthen herself. Anita Rabha, 58, lives in Baida village in Lakhipur block of Goalpara district. Years ago, a boy in her area suffered a dog bite. His father consulted a kobiraj, who acted like a traditional doctor for villagers. The kobiraj said that he would not be able to cure the boy. When the boy died, another kobiraj said that he had been eaten by a witch and pointed to Anita's house. It seems too much of a coincidence that this second kobiraj was related to Anita and her spouse, and had been in dispute with them over a piece of land. At this juncture, Anita received the support of her maternal family, who brought the couple to their home after they got driven out of their own house, but Birbal Rabha, her spouse, decided to separate from her. She now works at the local thana, the police station, washing utensils and clothes. She talks of how her younger son is finding it tough to pass the matriculation exam. Once he does, she says, he could get a driving licence and a job as a driver. Anita's daughter, 22, is in her third year of college and had also been going to computer classes but is not studying at present because of a problem with her hand. One doctor has diagnosed her with arthritis. Wrenched away from her home and village and fending for herself and her children, Anita worries as her own age diminishes her capabilities. When she does get some time, she tries to attend meetings of AMSS, the Assam Mahila Samata Samiti, which has been staunchly fighting the practice of witch-hunting.
Anita Rabha, driven out of her village on suspicion of witchcraft
Identifying and Targeting ‘Witches’
I meet AMSS members in Goalpara, where they work in five blocks. Goalpara also receives funds from the government because it is listed as a backward district. A number of women from neighbouring villages have been well trained as active members of the Samiti, which now has a strong network, and so the coordinator has to intervene only in extreme cases. AMSS has a long list of witch-hunting cases they intervened in. In 2012, Dukhumoli Daimari, a widow with children, was finally able to get her house built. Her son had also become independent and had been doing well. This prosperity of an ‘unfortunate’ woman became unpalatable for some relatives in the family who consulted an ojha, a kind of an astrologer-doctor-priest, who declared Dukhumoli a witch.
An ojha performing a ritual in her temple
Ojhas are important because they supposedly put the final stamp of identification on the witches to be targeted. The ojha I met, however, an old woman living in as much poverty as her next door neighbour in the village, did not come across as such an all-powerful figure. Surrounded by several of her grandchildren in her dimly lit hut, she showed me the small temple of mud where she had established the idol of a goddess. She plaintively remarked that ojhas are maligned for naming witches, while all they do is give a vague description of the person and the area to people who have already decided who they wish to target.
AMSS's intervention process involved a big meeting with all the villagers who had turned against Dukhumoli. Yet for about a year she had to live in a separate house outside the village, protected by the police and supported by groups like the Rabha Students Organisation and the Bodo Mahila Samiti. Finally an agreement was signed with the villagers where they said they would not trouble Dukhumoli again after she returned home and she, in turn, would not take any action against them.
AMSS fights witch hunting through direct intervention and awareness programmes
Ruma Kalita, AMSS, says, ‘I cannot think of a case where a woman went to the police directly. We intervene in a case if we get to know of it from our members or a woman could come to us if she knows of the group. Acceptance of the ostracised person finally happens by the village, though it does take time.’ This reconciliation often comes on the condition that no action would be taken against the villagers who had earlier assaulted the so-called witch. Something similar happened with Onila Basumatary.
Onila offers a guesstimate of 45-50 years upon being asked about her age. She had come to Assam from Noakhali after her marriage. Onila, along with two of her friends, had lent money to a person belonging to the Santhal tribe. Santhalis in Assam are often viewed with suspicion and distrust and considered outsiders. Because of their interactions with the person, all three women were suspected of being involved in witchcraft and were brutally attacked with lathis by about eighty people. Onila was later called the ‘luckier’ one because another friend of hers, already weak due to an illness she was going through, succumbed to her injuries.
Onila still continues to take medicines for the joint pains that had started after she was beaten up. A month after the attack she was not even able to move from her bed. All of this happened within a day in the Brahmo temple in the village and she never got a chance to refute the allegations foisted upon her. She did not file a police case because later people of the village gave her a thousand rupees for her treatment. She smiles sadly on being asked if that much money was enough. ‘Someone from the village came with me when I was going to the doctor. I had to pay for his food and conveyance, along with mine. For a week every day I had to go to the doctor and still have to continue those visits to the civil hospital in Udalguri. I feel like I have been ill for ever. I don't feel like a healthy person any more.’
Around 80 people attacked Onila Basumatary with lathis, after having branded her a witch
Onila does not have any land herself and works as a daily wage labourer. Her daughter-in-law weaves clothes but the output is just about enough for their own domestic consumption. Does she feel angry with the villagers about the injustice meted out to her, ‘I am not upset. What is the use? You have to live with these people. Now they talk to me like nothing had happened.’
The Prejudice of the Educated
It is believed that lack of education is the cause of witch-hunting in villages. But are the educated free of prejudice? The headmaster of Baida Junior College, Listiram Rabha, is also the honorary founder principal there. When asked about the practice of witch-hunting he says, ‘When a dakini, the witch, commits malpractices, she gets beaten up by the public. I would say they should not be killed. They should get a chance to rectify themselves.’ He recalls having acted as a mediator in many cases and saved the practitioners of witchcraft from the public, and the public from the law.
He continues to talk about the practice of dark rituals, ‘There is an oppodevata, a god with a supernatural, malevolent force that some people tame. If this force is sent to harm someone, the person would fall so ill that no doctor would be able to cure him. The patient would then have to offer some sacrifice. Content with this offering, the force will then help the practitioner again in the future when they summon the god. I saw on television that in a lady's house in Guwahati, curtains get set on fire. Such things are the work of the gods that I speak of. To tame such gods is a big art and Rabhas are experts in this.’
While he condemns the violent methods of witch-hunting, he speaks of the importance of education not in reforming the hunters but in transforming those he calls the practitioners, ‘Education is increasing. Tantric practices around here have gone down by about 60 per cent. People are going out to study but there aren't as many women doing this. They should.’
Working with Witch Hunters, Against Witch-Hunting
The mention of DGP Kula Saikia and his Project Prahari keeps coming up as an example of a campaign against witch-hunting. When I meet him at his office, it is easy to notice his pride in the campaign he had initiated, as in the Fulbright scholarship he had received for education in the US where he had studied models of community development. He fondly speaks of how this helped him connect better with people, ‘Recently a village woman called me up and said, “For us, you are our God” . . . these things are not common in the life of a police officer.’
Saikia talks about how witch-hunting is not a new phenomenon and traces its history in European countries. ‘In 2001, I was DIG, Kokrajhar. It is situated in lower Assam, which has a lot of tribal areas.’ When he read cases of how several people were murdered as part of witch-hunting, he felt it would need something more than traditional policing. ‘I learnt that before the crime the people of the village had held a meeting. I had to see it as a societal crime.’ Saikia found it a pity that community strength was being used in the wrong direction and wondered if it could be mobilised for a more constructive purpose.
When he questioned the villagers about the murders, they said they had been having several issues like crop failures and illnesses. So when the priest told them of the ‘witch’ responsible for their misfortunes, they decided to eliminate her. Saikia talks of how earlier people were afraid of the police but his project started a dialogue with the people and people began inviting Saikia to their villages voluntarily.
He decided that the villages need development, in the absence of which, people had started attacking their vulnerable fellow villagers due to frustration about their own conditions. He started creating what he calls a change agent-led growth model, roping in women's groups, students' groups, science clubs and doctors. The villagers resolved to take up productive activities like weaving. Project Prahari brought in designers from the National Institute of Design, agricultural experts, conducted health camps and sports like football. ‘The idea was to facilitate participation by local people in their own progress. We got people together to build their bridges and canals themselves, instead of always having to wait for the government to come in. Women got empowered and got confident enough to approach us for information about government schemes for them. If children were dying in a village in large numbers, I would get their blood tests done and it would turn out to be something like malaria. Terrorists would ask villagers not to interact with me but people would pay no heed.’ The campaign against witch-hunting thus spread to around hundred villages, led by the first village which had once been the perpetrator of the crime.
Gaps to be Mended
NEN isn't quick to buy Saikia's claim. ‘If the project was so successful, why was it not continued?’ asks NEN's Anurita Pathak. ‘Why didn't they raise funds, integrate anti-witch-hunting lessons in education and health in regional langauges?’
Chitralekha Barua of the same organisation underlines the media's role in encouraging regressive attitudes to women: ‘TV serials still keep women within the confines of their homes. Local channels would advertise which babas or priests you can go to if you are tamed by dakinis.’
NEN has been vociferous in demanding an anti-witch hunt legislation for the state but the bill has still not got the final approval. There are also other concerns around the present bill like a lack of nuanced understanding of the terms witchcraft and witchhunt, bez and ojha (both loosely used as terms for those who identify a certain person as a witch), and the differences between Assamese and Bodo languages. Activists worry that it does not focus enough on prevention. Professor Upen Rabha Hakasam of the department of folklore, Gauhati University, has personally faced the menace of witch-hunting as his own cousin, married in a well to do, highly educated household, had fallen prey to it. He says, ‘The British had been able to abolish the abhorrent practice of Sati by law. Why can't our government use the law to abolish witch-hunting?’
The Silver Lining
Outside of the law there have been attempts by artists to focus on the implications of witch-hunting, while activists use art to bolster their campaign. AMSS has travelled twenty villages with its play, along with putting up 200 awareness camps. There are films like Aei Maatite, Witch-Hunt Diaries and Jangfai Jonak on the subject.
Working for years now on ground zero, through village level branches called sanghas, AMSS members say that there has been a decrease in the number of murders because of witch-hunting, though many cases of ostracisation and assault are still there. The survivors who would previously hesitate to report cases are much more confident now. They talk of instances when the police demanded affidavits from women saying they would not withdraw their complaints. Some survivors also end up joining the organisation. Women have started demanding property rights. AMSS members visit the homes of women employed as labour, as carpenters and stone cutters, and get them registered so they have economic stability and are not completely vulnerable or dependent. AMSS adds that the power wielded by ojhas has weakened, and people have started going more to doctors; health centres in villages have helped.
AMSS itself has faced assault by villagers, who feared that the organisation would report them to the police. They called the women working with AMSS witches and their leaders like Mamoni and Birubala head witches. But the organisation did not take legal action against them because they wanted people to realise what they were doing was wrong, which they ultimately did and apologised.
Going beyond Black-and-White
In trying to understand witch-hunting, if we look at each case carefully, there seem to be some immediate causes like deep-set prejudices against women, poor health, education and economic status, inter- and intra-familial rivalries, ignorance and superstition. But a superior, patronising approach of relegating these features only to certain sections of society, marginalised in terms of gender, social or economic status, won't help. There are enough incidents to show that the practice also goes on in families with ample money and education. Something like non-conformism by women is punished across classes. In villages, women whose spouses treat them well, as equal partners, have been called witches. In cities, if a woman is loved and respected by her partner, she is asked what magic she had to resort to in order to keep the man in her ‘control’.
Similarly, rather than assuming that witch-hunting takes place in certain societies because they are ‘backward’ and uneducated would be taking a myopic view of things. In his paper 'Assam’s Tale of Witch-hunting and Indigeneity', Debarshi Prasad Nath makes some important larger connections, like linking witch-hunting to an aggressive, revivalist effort to establish cultural identities in a state where identity conflicts over resources are a common feature. Nath talks of how Bodo history doesn't have records of witch-hunts. He relates the frequency of witch-hunting in Bodo communities to a possible attempt by Bodo people to integrate themselves with an ancient part of Assamese history. Nath's paper points to the possibility of witch-hunting being a skewed way in which some members of the community try to resist a homogenisation imposed by majoritarian groups. The infamous witch-hunting incident that took place in Majuli in Assam comes to mind where for three days in 2013 even the police could/did not enter the area to intervene.
Then there is the case of the ex-principal of Udalguri College, Prafulla Kumar Basumatary. His wife was named as a witch by Basumatary's niece. The niece had been pursuing her MBA in Mumbai and had come to her village in Assam at that time. Her aunt, the accused, says there were two reasons for this targeting: jealousy around the fact that Basumatary's own children were doing very well in cities in terms of education and work, and because the said niece was in love with someone her own family was not allowing her to marry, and she found this an easy way to vent her frustration. So, here, along with familial rivalry and socioeconomic insecurities, for the niece there was the pressured and uncomfortable coexistence of an aspirational city life along with the traditional expectations of her family.
Blamed by their own relatives, the Basumatary family had to rebuild their home elsewhere
Along with a nuanced understanding of the triggers to witch-hunting while working with perpetrators, there also needs to be a patient unearthing of unsaid narratives of the survivors. NEN's Anurita Pathak points out that in many cases the victims can hope to get some kind of justice only after they are dead. But witch-hunting is not just an isolated incident. It is often a protracted process that can also include sexual violence, stalking, disrobing, molestation, acid attacks and public humiliation, rejecting sexual advances being one of the causes. Due to stigma and resignation to the fact that the survivors have to continue to live amongst their attackers, many of these stories never come to the fore, leading to not just a denial of justice but also a never-articulated demand for it.
First published in Eclectic NorthEast, January 2017. Subsequently published in India Resists, 3 Mar 2017. Photos by Jadeed Hussain and Nasreen Habib.