Assam has been experiencing a sudden spurt in witch-hunting for more than a decade with hundreds of people especially women being denounced as daini (witch) and often hacked to death. But this is not a new phenomenon in this North Eastern state. Ostracising and lynching innocent persons in the name of witchcraft had been persisting for centuries. Some ethnic groups of the state continue to practise tantric (occult) rituals even today to avert evil spirits.
Repressive acts such as occult practice and customary animal sacrifice had been existed for several hundred years. Kamrup was once famous as the “Indian capital of black magic” and people used come from distant places to muster the art.
Persecuting or hunting down people after accusing them as witches is prevalent among tribal communities like Bodo, Rabha, Adivashi, Mishing, Karbi and Hajong. These communities—mostly illiterate and economically backward, still believe in ancient myths, super-natural activities and superstitions. They refuse to discard irrational thinking and inhuman acts despite numerous attempts made by the government agencies, NGO’s and social activists. This is a paradoxical situation wherein these practices, some of which are barbaric in nature, have coexisted with modernity.
The menace of witch-hunting has reached an alarming proportion in the state. Reports suggest that more than 130 people had been killed in witch-hunting related violence in at least 17 districts of Assam since 2002. On July 20, 2015, a 60 year-old woman was beheaded in northern Sonitpur district after accusing her of practicising sorcery. Earlier, in another bizarre incident on May 28, a five year-old was decapitated in a tea garden of the same district.
In several tribal-inhabited areas of the state that lack proper infrastructure, primary health care, education and sanitation facilities, people having deep-rooted belief in traditional mores and customs, rush to ojhas (healers or quacks) or tantrics (occult practitioners or witch doctors) for remedies of their ailments. When quacks and exorcists fail to diagnose the disease and cure the patient, the blame is put on a witch or bhoot (ghost) who generally happens to be a fellow villager.
Occurrences of witchcraft cases are higher during the rainy season when people in the peripheral areas suffer from many diseases, including typhoid, malaria, chicken pox and diarrhea. The tribal people believe that the members of their own clan spread evil spirits causing serious illness to many of the villagers.
The reasons attributed to growing cases of witch-hunting include personal feud, rural politics, property dispute, illiteracy and absence of adequate health care facilities in the remote areas of the state. But it may be misleading to say that the absence of basic health care facilities and education and prevalence of superstitions are the only reasons of witch-hunting. Because in some cases, it was found that a few educated persons were also involved in such acts.
The state police claim that the brutal practice of witch-hunting is fast turning into a new avenue of money making for a section of people. There is complicity between some lumpen elements and quacks in the rural areas to change fortune overnight. The involvement of land mafias had been reported in a number of cases. The local goons make use of superstitions to uproot and even eliminate families to grab their land.
Conspiracies are hatched either to compel the victims to sell their properties at nominal price or kill the family members with the connivance of neighbours by declaring them witches. In tribal societies, denouncing a person and his family members as black magic practitioners automatically devalues the price of their land since nobody intends to purchase a land where once alleged witches lived or practised black magic.
Interestingly, the quacks who normally detect and identify witches and whose writ run in rural belts, themselves become victims of witch-hunting at times. With the passage of time, this social menace is increasingly becoming complex.
Some find it a convenient ploy to castigate a woman as witch for executing their nefarious designs. It is not uncommon to see persecutions and killings related to witch-hunting are resulted from “romantic jealousy”. A jilted lover tries to settle his personal tragedy by accusing his female counterpart of practicising black magic.
In a patriarchal society, a woman is punished even for turning down sexual advances of influential person. Sometimes, women are also made responsible for natural calamities and poor harvest. Oppression of women in the pretext of witch-hunting is a disturbing trend that Assam has been witnessing in the recent period.
There are no set criterion which could be uniformly applied to all the witch-hunting cases that have taken place in the state. The modus operandi of this social evil varies from place to place and one ethnic group to another. Witch-hunting occurs due to a complex interplay of multiple factors. It is difficult to pin point a specific reason for this social evil.
The civil rights groups of the state have been consistently demanding a tough law to contain such inhuman practice. In a major development on August13, the state assembly unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill.
It is the strictest anti-witch-hunting legislation ever adopted by any state assembly in the country. The law has made witch-hunting a criminal and nonbailable offence. It stipulates three to seven years jail for leveling any person a witch. The term could be extended to life imprisonment in case the person is forced to commit suicide as a consequence of being branded a witch.
With this law, the Assam government seeks to contain illegal practices by quacks. It envisages action against negligence in investigation and free legal assistance to victims. There is also provision for establishing special courts to expedite the trial.
However, many in Assam feel that mere legislation even it may be stringent, is not sufficient to completely eradicate an age-old evil practice like witch-hunting. It has to be supplemented with awareness campaigns. Torture and killings associated with witch-hunting have been happening with disturbing regularity and are about to threaten tribal society’s peace and harmony.
One of the key problems has been tribal communities’ superstitious belief system. In order to away with the brutal practice of witchcraft, there is an urgent need to organise camps and workshops in the vulnerable areas to raise the level of awareness mainly regarding health aspects, increase the rate literacy and promote economic empowerment among the under-privileged sections of the society with the help of various welfare schemes of the government.
Witch-hunting also entails incidents in which innocent people have to undergo traumatic phases involving both mental agonies and severe physical stress. The brutalities perpetrated against women and children in the guise of witchcraft are contrary to the ethos of the country’s civilisation that among other things empashises tolerance and try to inculcate a rational faculty into the individuals. The anti-superstition campaigners have long been demanding a national law as this social evil persists in not less than 12 states of India.
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, India, and focuses on issues related to India-Bangladesh relations, insurgency, infrastructure development, and regional connectivity in North-East India.