On 17 October, several news channels beamed horrifying visuals of a woman being tortured and beaten up at a community prayer hall in the remote Serekali village of Karbi Anglong district in Assam. The villagers accused her of practicing witch-craft after a few elderly people in the village died, and accused her of being the cause of the deaths.
The 34-year-old victim was no helpless woman. She is Assam’s pride. Debojani Bora is a veteran athlete; a champion javelin thrower, who has won gold medals in various national meets. With the entire village, including local priests, against her, she was branded a witch and later tortured and humiliated by her own village folk. The attack was so brutal that she had to be hospitalised.
“The elders in the village proclaimed me a witch and pronounced me guilty of a the death of few people, who actually died of alcoholism. I was beaten up and tortured to exorcise the alleged ghost in me. Who will ensure that I get justice?” asks Bora.
But Bora is not the odd one out. In a way, she is lucky that she is still alive. A few months ago, the people of Assam were shocked when the news broke out that the family members of PK Basumatary, a retired principal of Udalguri College in Udalguri had to flee their house after locals branded them witches.
Witch-hunting is not a new phenomenon in Assam, where such practices continue to be a part of the state’s modern landscape. Almost every other day, kangaroo courts in various villages brand someone a witch and incidents of witch-hunting take place in full public display as the government turns a blind eye.
No less than 85 heinous cases of witch-hunting have been registered with various police stations in the state between 2008 and 2014. If sources are to be believed, since 2005, more than 100 cases of witch-hunting have taken place in Assam. With no separate records of witch-hunting maintained by the Assam Police, it is difficult to corroborate the numbers. Unlike Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which have laws against witch-hunting, Assam does not have laws outlawing witch-hunting. Cases of witch-hunting are clubbed with cases of violence.
The irony does not end here. According to sources in the Assam Police, investigations into 15 percent of witch-hunting cases registered in the state since 2008 actually met a dead end; the police were not able to chargesheet any of the accused. Meanwhile, over 20 percent of cases are still to be investigated.
Between 2005 and 2013, 66 women branded witchs and killed. Of the 105 cases in the same period, the highest numbers of cases (29) were in 2011. In the insurgency and ethnic conflict-hit Kokrajhar district alone, there were 20 such cases.
The police have filed chargesheets in over 50 cases and have arrested nearly 500 people accused of torturing and murdering innocent people, mostly women, under the garb of witch-hunting. However, the conviction rates in such cases are almost nil.
No less than 10 districts in Assam now face the menace of witch-hunting. According to sources in the government, the number of cases have shown an enormous increase in the districts of Kamrup, Nalbari, Jorhat, Kokrajhar, Goalpara, Sivasagar and Udalguri. The victims in most cases are rural women, although in the past few years, men are also being targeted.
“The Assam Police is hard pressed on crime investigations. Since there is no separate anti-witch hunting law in Assam, you will have to book the accused under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). And a with lack of awareness among cops at the grassroots level, it is often treated as a routine crime case. Moreover, in rural villages, the odds are always stacked against the victim. The police also tend to side with the majority, which usually is a village mob. At the local level, the people conducting kangaroo courts are better connected than the victims, thus, a lot of influence is put on the police. Since the issue is a social evil and because police officers see no scope of minting money, the investigation is usually always put on the backburner,” says a highly placed officer in the Assam Police on condition of anonymity.
The senior official who shared this insight hits the bull’s eye. In the case of Debajoni, the local police had registered the case under Section 143 (intimidation) and 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) of the IPC, which are both bailable sections.
Every time a ghastly incident of with-hunting takes place in Assam, there is widespread criticism by the civil society but very few have fought the menace. Time and again, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has publicly admitted to the need of an anti-witch hunting law in the state. However, two years after a government-appointed committee submitted its draft law — Bill Conferring Right to Protection Against Witch-Hunting — the government could not place the Bill for discussion in the state legislative Assembly, forget putting the bill on the fast track to becoming a law.
“With the government machinery taking things lightly, cases are now being reported from urban areas, where the victims and perpetrators of the crime are educated. This is a new trend. In many cases, the accused get bail easily since the police charged them under softer sections of the IPC. Unless there is a political will to fight the menace, which is clearly lacking, the civil society will have to look forward to courts to pull up the government,” says BD Konwar, a civil rights lawyer based in Assam.
The worrying trend, however, is that in Assam and the rest of Northeast, the menace of witch-hunting is no more gender-specific. In September 2008, a youth and his mother were lynched by a mob in Bongaigaon distirst of lower Assam, on suspicions of witchcraft. This indicates that anyone and, perhaps, everyone in Assam stands a chance of being first branded as a witch.
And what happened in 2013 at the non-descript Sikarigaon village in Majuli was perhaps the last nail in the coffin, yet the Gogoi regime is enjoying its slumber. Villagers accused about 35 persons, including children and women, for casting a spell of black magic, causing unnatural deaths in the village.
For the people in Assam fighting against witch-hunting, the war is getting increasingly difficult. Birubala Rabha, a noted anti-witch-hunting crusader who herself been a victim and has saved lives of several victims, has the last word: “Unless the victims can assert the fact that their votes also matter and they are also politically important, those in power might just not come to their aid.”
Witch-hunting in Assam has turned into an organised crime
With lack of initiative from the Assam government, the fight against the growing menace of witch hunting is left to a few activists. Noted anti-witch-hunting activist Dibyajyoti Saikia, known for rescuing victims of witch-hunting, tells Ratnadip Choudhury why Assam is losing out to the age old practice.
Edited Excerpts from an interview
Cases of witch-hunting are on the rise in Assam. What do you make of the sudden spurt in such cases?
It wasn’t that there were fewer cases of witch-hunting in the past. Even a decade ago, things were grave as they are now, but now more and more people are reporting such cases. Especially because now it has taken the form of organised crime, unlike in the past when such cases were related to superstition. I have evidence where several victims were targeted by manipulating and taking the support of the superstitious believers. The Assam government has been dragging its feet when it comes to educating people and eradicating such social evils. It is precisely because of the dormant role of the social welfare, health and home departments of the Assam government that this kind of malevolent practices are still prevalent.
Is witch-hunting in Assam only related to superstition or are there other factors at play?
In recent times, witch-hunting has taken a very different form. Earlier, it was associated with superstition and black magic. In most of the cases now, it is a planned conspiracy. Jealousy and rivalry within a family or a village is dealt with by resorting to witch-hunting. It is a social evil and cancerous for the society. When a woman makes progress in her standard of living or stands up for her rights, she becomes an easy target and is branded a witch.
As most victims are rural women, do you think witch-hunting is used to suppress women who speak out?
Witch-hunting is an ancient way of practising crime against women. But recent cases suggest that even men are being targeted. In fact, the state police and the government have ignored cases of witch-hunting against men. What is worse, even the media doesn’t report such cases.
You have been an anti-witch-hunting crusader in Assam. What are the challenges on the ground in terms of tackling this menace?
I have to face a lot of problem, both on the ground level and at the administrative level. Most people actually believe in these practices, which results in a lack of cooperation at the ground level. In fact, very often
There is a threat to life. Lack of communication, financial support and, most importantly, lack of cooperation from the administration make things tougher.
How difficult is it for those who survive being branded witches or wizards to get back into the mainstream?
It is extremely difficult for them because they get no cooperation from the society. Often, people who brand them witches come from well-off backgrounds. The victims face mental harassment. Even if they shift to a new place, survival is difficult. The government doesn’t support them or help rehabilitate them and the villagers are afraid to support them because of the stronger image of the opposition party.
The civil society movement in Assam is very strong. How has the civil society reacted to the spike in cases of witch-hunting?
It is ironic that on the one hand, we claim to have a strong civil society, and on the other, it keeps quiet on issues such as witch-hunting. This is unexpected and disappointing.
Are men also victims of witch-hunting in Assam? How are men being targeted?
No less than 40 percent cases of witch-hunting reported in Assam have men as victims. Men are increasingly been targeted. The main causes are professional rivalry, property issues and jealousy.
Why do you feel that a strong law is the best solution, given the fact that witch-hunting is rampant across Assam?
Strong anti-witch-hunting laws are already in place in Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. However, because the law isn’t enforced well, conviction rates are low. The situation in Assam is very grave. We cannot accept a weak law. We need a law that has strict penalties, so that those who perpetrate such crimes are brought to book. It will also instil fear, lest the law is taken for granted.