Birubala, what led you to fight against the practice of witch hunting?
Birubala Rabha My eldest son Dharmaswar has been mentally challenged since childhood. Once, my husband went to a Deodhani (people believed be to incarnations of god). The Deodhani told my husband that my son would die within three days, but he is still alive. This happened in 1985. It was I who insisted that my husband go to the Deodhani. I was shattered at first to know that my son would be alive only three more days, but I am happy that he is still alive. That incident dented my traditional belief. It brought too many questions, which I pondered upon for years. From childhood to my youth and in my married life, I have seen several women in the area ostracised, thrown out of their villages after being branded witches. In many cases, their own families distanced themselves from them. Whenever I came across these cases of witch hunting cases in the area, I felt disturbed. But for an uneducated rural tribal women like me, I had no idea how to fight. I got myself engaged in the village Mahila Samiti and by virtue of being the secretary, I was invited in a discussion by the Assam Mahila Samata Society (AMSS) in Goalpara on the issue of witch-hunting. Five women, who I knew were tortured and thrown out of their villages after being branded as witches, were present. But when the AMSS activists asked women of the area if they knew anything about witch hunting, no one was ready to open their mouth even though everyone knew the truth. This enraged me, and I stood up and said that all the five women were victims of witch hunting. That was the beginning; I joined the AMSS and started visiting rural areas to identify and rescue victims of witch hunting. One of the biggest issues was the deep-rooted faith of the people in those quacks.
Bipul Rabha The poor and uneducated villagers cannot be blamed alone, you see. In our village, the situation is better now because people have slowly reposed faith on what Birubala is trying to do. For years, tribal areas have been underdeveloped. There were no schools or hospitals. If someone in the village was suffering from a prolonged disease, they would go to the local bez (village traditional healer). But if he did not show signs of improvement, the bez would ask the family to perform some rituals, and if even those failed, he would tell them that their next door neighbour had cast black magic. The entire village almost immediately sent that lady out of the village. I will try my best to stop the victims’ social boycott but I cannot outright reject the plea of the villagers to discuss the issue. It is very difficult to go astray from a parampara for a tribal society, unless it sees development through education. Quacks are very much part of rural society even today.
Birubala I was one of those ignorant villagers who Bipul is talking about in order to illustrate why as a gaon burah he cannot take a bold step against witchhunting or similar social evils. About 13 years back, a destitute lady in our village was socially boycotted after being branded as a witch. I raised my voice against this. Almost the entire village went against me. They questioned me, tried to harass me, but I stood my ground. Since I was the secretary of the village Mahila Samiti, people were a little scared of me, otherwise I would have been tortured. They forced me to resign from my post and finally I was ostracised. They could not throw me out of the village, but people socially boycotted me for raising my voice in favour of the witch-hunting victim.
Bipul I was a teenager when Birubala was boycotted. At that time, I thought the elders in the village took the right decision because she was seen as opposing a collective decision. Initially, the villagers thought that she would melt down under pressure but when she challenged the villagers, it became a clash of male ego versus women trying to go beyond her social limits.
How did you deal with the social boycott?
Birubala I was socially boycotted in the village for more than three years. In that time I travelled with NGOs to campaign against witch-hunting. Whenever I got news of a case, I would walk several kilometers to save the girls. There were so many cases. I thank God that I got the information at the right time and I could save them, maybe some of them would have been killed. By fighting for them, I was fighting for myself. I was fighting for womanhood and I was fighting patriarchy, because most of the quacks are men and most of the witch-hunting victims women. The statistics speak for themselves: of the 35 people I have personally rescued, 33 are women and two are men. Slowly I was introduced to senior police and district administering officials, who raised my morale. I felt their support gave me the strength to go back to my village and explain to my people why they were wrong, and I decided to take the village society head on.
Was there a turning point in your battle?
Birubala Since I became close to the government officials, I was instrumental in getting a pucca road constructed in the village. Then, security forces involved in counter-insurgency operations picked up some innocent boys from my village and tried to brand them as rebels. I fought for their cause, and since I was respected by senior police officials, the innocent boys were released. Slowly, I saw a change in body language among the villagers.
Bipul Those incidents were eye-openers for the villagers. We were happy because she helped the village. The elders saw how ‘evil women’, as she was looked upon by the villagers, could do good, and eventually they realised that she was indeed a good woman. Initially, youths like me supported her. We could understand that the tradition we were following was born out of ignorance and lack of education. We helped her convince the elders and over the years witch-hunting cases have come down. We could realise that it was also case of male prejudice against women, a criminal offence committed by a community and society; it was simply a crime against women. We slowly stood up for her cause.
Birubala But it did not come so easily. When I moved out of the village and stayed away for days to helping victims in other places, people back home tried desperately to assassinate my character. I guess that’s how a male-dominated society reacts when they lose to a female. I feel glad now to see that even some of the villagers who had once played the lead role to socially boycott me are in my favour. But the way forward is long. Recently, the activist Dinesh Das has formed a team of volunteers and launched Mission Birubala to help me. I wish more people join me in my fight. We need teachers, doctors and educated youths to go back to their villages and explain that witch-hunting is barbaric, it is a way to torture women.