A step forward
Assam’s anti-witch hunting crusader Birubala Rabha is all set to start a much-needed shelter for the victims of the menace
Anti-witch hunt campaigner Birubala Rabha is a household name in Assam. Her sheer grit against a formidable violent mob that supports the primitive practice of witch-hunting in her community has made her an example for many facing excommunication and death threats, particularly women.
Birubala, who has been fighting the menace since the 1980s, is now all set to take another vital step forward. Her campaign, Mission Birubala, is all set to set up a much-needed shelter for the victims of witch hunt. The State Government has come forward to give her land to set up the shelter house on an eight bigha plot in Rombuk village of Goalpara district. The proposal has been recently approved by District Land Advisory Committee.
Branded as witches, the victims including their families are invariably ostracised from their villages. "To provide shelter to the dissociated lot and their wards is top priority,” says Birubala. The shelter will also impart them training in various fields as a part of skill upgradation and rehabilitation.
"It is disheartening that rescued victims, when sent back to their villages, face the same treatment. They need medical treatment after having undergone a trauma. Worse, their wards are humiliated when they go to school,” Dr Natyabir Das, the coordinator of the Mission says. There are instances when children of those branded witches drop-out of school. The shelter in Rombuk village will include a counselling centre too, he adds.
The effort at rehabilitation began when Goalpara Deputy Commissioner submitted a proposal to the Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam’s Revenue, Disaster Management department. Birubala, the chief functionary of the Mission who has been fighting tooth and nail to eradicate this superstitious evil from the State, spearheaded the campaign. As many as 600 members in 13 districts of the State supported her. On March 3, the land settlement document in favour of Birubala was sent to the Goalpara Deputy Commissioner.
In 2013, a proposal for allotment of a plot of land measuring five bigha at Dudhnoi Revenue Town to Mission Birubala was sent to the State Government for final approval but following objection from some villages an alternate proposal was sought.
Birubala says what matters most for her Mission is generating employment opportunity for victims. The body therefore has chalked out plans to initiate agriculture farming, including fish culture at the plot, to ensure economic security and make them self-dependent.
The branding of people as witches, highlights Das, is an easy way for rich landowners to grab the land of tribal people. The heinous trend, he says, could be traced to the transition period, that is the initiation of liberal economic policy in the country in 1991. The scientific proof that there is nothing like a witch has failed to make any dent in remote areas.
Das says the belief is deep rooted in some far-flung areas in Goalpara district where Health Department was not allowed to administer polio vaccinations. "We were obstructed from carrying out a polio administration camp because of villagers’ belief on treatment through traditional medicine. With the help of a college principal we could motivate the villagers."
According to Birubala, another problem is that women are being used by their menfolk to oppose anti-witch hunting activities. "When our group organises an awareness meet, a section of women stand in the way," she says, adding, “This in effect help the perpetrators.”
In all this, one man is the most important -- the village headman. The 'gaonburah' wields tremendous power in areas which are far away from the Administration. His orders are not flouted. Where such superstitious beliefs like witch hunting exists, the village head could play a pivotal role. “There is an instance when we gently got a village head in Goalpara replaced because of his stick-in-the mud attitude,” says Das.
To give a thrust to the anti-witch hunting campaign, the Mission has constituted working cells in various colleges of the State, including in the Dibrugarh University. Since students from various parts, including remote rural areas, come to study in colleges they can be good anti-witch hunting ambassadors. "If they fail to convey the reality in their villages, they can inform us and we will join their efforts,” says Das.
Going down the memory lane to explain how her mission started, Birubala mentions that her mentally challenged son made her disbelieve the superstitions prevalent in tribal societies. “In 1985, my son Dharmeshwar was predicted by the Deodhani that his end is imminent and he will die in a couple of days. My son is still alive.” She says that incident made her reject all traditional beliefs.
Arpana Bora, coordinator of Mission Birubala in Upper Assam says the problem is more serious in Upper Assam because many incidents go unreported. “Here the victim is subjected to undergo mental torture for a long period. So the matter remains under the wrap for many occasions,” Bora says.
Usha Rabha, an assistant functionary of the Mission, calls for enactment of the law for Prevention and Protection from Witch-Hunting at the earliest in Assam. The Assam Government should follow States like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, which have special laws to deal with such cases. For her outstanding struggle against witch-hunting, Birubala's name and photo has found a place in the book entitled “1000 Peace Women Across the Globe.” The book was published in Switzerland.
(Kishore Talukdar is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His areas of interest include Development journalism and Environment journalism. He can be contacted at email@example.com )