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Chitralekha Baruah
Date of Publish: 2015-08-21

Go the whole hog

 

Along with the implementation of the Act, it is important to carve out a simultaneous campaign that focuses on common triggers like superstition to succeed in abetting witch hunting in Assam

Chitralekha Baruah

 

With the recent passing of the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015 in the Assembly, Assam has joined States like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, etc. that have brought a law against the killer menace. Declared a non-bailable offence, witch hunting in Assam can now attract a seven-year jail term for the perpetrator/s. It can also lead to a fine of up to Rs. five lakh for identifying someone as a witch.

But unaware of what may be in store for someone who commits such a crime henceforth, the ugly practice is still being carried out in the State. So, like in every monsoon, when the number of cases of witch hunting coincides with the bout of deaths due to water borne diseases, this monsoon too is no different. A practice primarily hinged on superstition, the particular trigger during the monsoons has been -- a patient has passed away not because of a weather-related disease but because someone in the village has the bad omen that brings death. Besides of course, land grabbing, jealousy, mutual enmity and rejection in sexual advances etc. as reasons for committing witch hunting. The most widely reported case of witch hunting this monsoon is from Bhimajuli in Sonitpur district’s Biswanath Chariali.

Six years ago a similar incident happened in lower Assam’s Goalpara district. The victim of the case is 45-year-old  Rohila  (name changed) Rabha from a  village in Garo Hills near Assam Meghalaya  border.  Rohila , a mother of four, is a hard working woman from a cultivator’s family. Her trouble began when she inherited three bighas of land ( nearly 7 bigha constitute a hectare) after her mother’s death. In the village Rohila  became the first woman to have land in her name. As the Rabhas are a patriarchal tribe, inheritance of parental property through the female line is unusual. It obviously caused envy in many, created some enemies for her.

Her economically well-off   neighbour, Digen (50 name changed) --in whose house Rohila  used to work as a help quite often -  was one of them. Digen had exchanged a plot of land with Sriram (name changed), a former village headman, without any written document. That plot was next to Rohila’s house. Seeing the plot unused, Rohila’s husband began growing vegetables there without any permission from Digen or Sriram.

The envious duo one day destroyed all the saplings on that land. Rohila  and her husband offered to pay rent for using the land during the vegetable growing season. But a furious Digen  not only rejected it but also stabbed her forehead with a machete.

That evening,  Rohia’s husband called a meeting at his house where the village headman asked Digen  to pay a sum of Rs. three thousand to the injured woman as compensation. The villagers visited her to show empathy. Roila’s   son treated all the guests with rice beer. Digen’s   wife also came along and drank beer. Three days later, Digen’s   wife complained of severe stomach pain and died the next day. Digen grabbed the chance and accused Rohila of being responsible for his wife’s death. The villagers believed Digen that Rohila must have mixed something in his wife’s beer to take revenge. They also began to believe Digen’s insinuation that Rohila had some evil potential.

Rohila spend a year amidst the suspicious looks of fellow villagers. Meanwhile, a newly-wed bride, Amola Rabha, came to the village. She claimed to be a soothsayer. Since villagers had to go far for a soothsayer, they were happy to welcome Amola. Some well-to-do villagers including Digen and Sriram even donated money to construct a temple for Amola. Six months after her arrival, the annual Gram Puja was held where Amola went into a trance and claimed that she was possessed by a goddess. Suddenly, she declared Rohila as a witch. She held that Rohila was responsible for the death of children and cattle in the village. The villagers believed the soothsayer.

Some days after that declaration, Rohila’s  husband drank heavily and became violent. She was scared and without much thinking ran to Digen’s  house for safety. Digen obviously did not like her entering his house. He called a public meeting the next day and accused Rohila of entering his house to eat someone in his family. In that meeting, the villagers decided to banish Rohila from the village immediately. She kept defending herself without success. She was asked by a young man to hold a bonti (a burning lamp)on her palm in  Amola’s  temple. Holding a burning lamp on palm  would prove her innocence which Rohila  refused. It made their belief even stronger. Young boys present in the meeting then chased her out of the village. On the way, she was beaten so brutally that she lost her front teeth. Her unconscious body was then thrown to the cremation ground near the village crossroad. Her husband too was attacked for supporting her; he lost his sense of hearing in it.

It was midnight when a shattered Rohila and her husband reached a relative’s house in Goalpara. There she received a minimum medical treatment. After a week, they moved in to a rented house at a marketplace, far away from their village. The couple began working as daily wagers even though they had land of their own. Rohila  wished to settle in her birthplace where she had her parental land but villagers of that village too would not let her in. Her land was encroached upon too.  She was not even allowed to attend her daughter’s marriage, fixed by relatives in her absence.

The Assam Mahila Samata Society’s Goalpara district unit has been on the case for some years now. After talking to the villagers, the Society staff established contact with the police and the local administration but found it tough to place Rohila  back in her village. Finally, in October last year, they were able to escort her to her marital village after five years of her exile. Her reunion with the children at her dilapidated house was a dream come true for her.

No. of cases addressed by AMSS since 2000 in Goalpara district and its adjoining areas near Assam- Meghalaya boundary

(Source: District Implementation Unit, AMSS Goalpara)

Assam

Meghalaya

Victim

Settled

Already murdered

Settled

Already murdered

In process

Male

6

4

-

-

-

Female

48

8

7

2

3

Total

54

 

12

7

2

3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the Bill now turning a law in the State, there is a strong expectation from various organisations working against the crime that women like Rohila would not have to live in fear of their life in their own village. However, in order to achieve such a goal, more awareness will have to be generated not only about the Act but also by carving out a simultaneous campaign to abet such crimes in future keeping the common triggers in mind. Just taking strict legal actions against someone after committing such a crime is not enough to combat witch hunting in the State.

Among other triggers, it is important to also focus on eradicating such superstitionof societies.In fact, superstition has always proved to be enough in a non- literate society to gain mass support and thereby convert an individual enmity into a community issue to be settled through a public prosecution, i.e. ostracising or killing a person branded a witch.

(Names of persons mentioned in the case study have been changed to protect their identites)

(Chitralekha Baruah, is a consultant at National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), North Eastern Regional Centre(NERC), Khanapara, Guwahati.  Also a freelance writer, she received Kunjabala Devi  memorial  award for her series of investigating reporting on witch hunting for the year  2011 )

 

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