Till eight to 10 years back, nearly 14-15 people were murdered or lynched annually in the name of witch-hunting in Assam. Tripura also reported two to three such cases.
Besides witchcraft and witch-hunting, black magic was also prevalent, mostly among the tribals, who constitute around 28 per cent of the 45.58 million population (2011 Census) in the northeastern states.
However, such cases come down sharply in the last few years, thanks to a massive campaigns by many organisations, individuals and enactment of law by the Assam government in 2015.
The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2015, which received the assent of the President on June 13, 2018, says that it would prevent and protect persons from witch-hunting, torture, oppression, humiliation and killing by a section of the society with punishment by trial of offences relating to witch-hunting.
The law also provides punishment of the accused with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but can extend up to a term of seven years and with fine, which shall not be less than Rs 50,000 but which may extend up to Rs 5,00,000.
Assam’s leading activist Birubala Rabha’s unyielding efforts not only helped reduce such superstitious beliefs surrounding witchcraft, but also forced the Assam government to enact the law.
In recognition of the septuagenarian activist’s crusade against the superstitious practice, she was awarded with Padma Shri last year.
Rabha has been relentlessly fighting against witch-hunting as such social menace is prevalent in Assam, especially among the tribal communities and Adivasis.
“I have devoted my life for the cause of my community and other hapless women. My efforts and work are to some extent successful, but I am not going to rest till my last breath. I urge others to take up the mission to prevent superstitious beliefs and victimisation of innocent people, especially women,” said Rabha, who is now ailing.
A resident of Assam’s Goalpara district, Rabha is a force who fights and strongly raises her voice against social evils.
Her struggle against witch-hunting began in 2000 when her mentally challenged son was branded as a witch and diagnosed to die within three days. This diagnosis was her initial trigger to fight for people’s rights.
After her first public meeting against witch-hunting on September 15, 2001 in Dodan Manch (Goalpara), Rabha’s family was isolated by the villagers in Thakurvilla for three years. She faced life threatening attacks and was chased many times at night by angry mobs forcing her to run through the jungles to save herself.
Rabha formed the ‘Mission Birubala’ in 2012 and launched a massive awareness campaign against witch-hunting and superstitious beliefs besides providing rehabilitation to the victims.
“Rabha’s efforts promote women’s education and scientific temperament. The mission has been successful in saving 55 victims till now in Majuli, Kokrajhar, Goalpara and Tinsukia districts,” an official document said.
Rabha received numerous awards and honours for her work. She was honoured with International Prize For Women’s Creativity in Rural Life by the Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF), Geneva, in 2018.
According to Natyabir Das, an associate of Rabha, the ‘Birubala Mission’ now has around 600 members across Assam and has saved the lives of at least 200 people, mostly women.
Witch-hunting is a form of superstitious faith prevailing mostly among the tribal community in which women are usually blamed and targeted for deaths, disease, financial crisis, family troubles or even crop damage by their neighbours, fellow villagers or the trouble-ridden people.
Sometimes such women are often isolated, forced to leave villages, tortured by kangaroo courts, and in many cases lynched or killed or provided severe punishment.
Studies conducted by various organisations also found that witch-hunting cases sometimes involve grabbing land and other property due to personal rivalry.
According to Assam government’s official data, 107 people, mostly women, were killed between 2011 and 2019 in different parts of Assam in witch-hunting incidents.
Since 2004, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), the apex student body of the Bodos, also organised awareness campaigns to eradicate the superstition of witch-practices in the tribal dominated areas of western Assam though such incidents happened in eastern Assam too.
The ABSU also rehabilitated a large number of innocent persons who were forced to leave from their native villages on the suspicion of witch practices.
Though no law has been enacted yet in Tripura, massive campaigns by various organisations and improvement of literacy rate among the tribals helped tame witchcraft, witch-hunting and black magic to a large extent.
“Many NGOs involving both tribals and non-tribals have been in the forefront against the superstitious belief of witchcraft, witch-hunting and black magic. In the last more than one decade, such incidents have hardly been reported in Tripura,” former principal scientific officer to the state government, Mihir Lal Roy, told IANS.
He said that with the expansion of both health services, education facilities and their infrastructural growth in the tribal and remote areas, many disbelief and superstition among people, including tribals, have been eradicated.
Roy, who authored many books on science, superstition and societal issues, said that with the literacy and awareness campaign launched by the Tripura Upajati Ganamukti Parishad since 1945, many disbelief, false notion, unscientific practices among the tribals and non-tribals have been successfully eradicated.
He said that a New Delhi-based organisation – Human Rights Defence International – has proposed to the Central and state governments to enact laws against witchcraft, witch-hunting and black magic.
“The law cannot alone solve such unscientific and age-old practices; holistic approach and constant campaign, improvement of education and health services are also essential to prevent any kind of unscientific practice,” said Roy, who’s also a senior lawyer.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)