GOALPARA, India—Like other women in her village, Raneshwari Rabha keeps busy through the day, tending to her chickens in the coop and tilling her brother’s land where she grows paddy, vegetables, rubber and betel nut. The 48-year-old has been living with her brother, Harnath, and his family for the last eight years.
Their village, Besorkona, falls in the remote interiors of Goalpara district, about 166 kms (103 miles approx) from Guwahati, the state capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
The roads leading to the countryside have vastly improved even if the area remains barren of any modern signs of development that has reached most of the smaller towns in Assam. An undulating sight of green hills and paddy fields is met with very few people around. More often, you see women donning the mekhala chadar, the traditional attire, working in the fields or running small roadside shops.
Rabha’s children, a son and a daughter, live 13 kms (eight miles) away from her, in the bordering state of Meghalaya. Until 2005, she led a happy life with them and her husband, Limeshwar, in Meghalaya’s Naguapara village.
But one night, she was forced to leave everything behind after a mob of villagers had surrounded their house, calling her, daini (translated to ‘witch’).
“I still remember how people were cutting down trees to make canes and beat me up with it,” Rabha told VICE News.
Although Limeshwar was usually on her side, said Rabha Raneshwari, he was helpless that night before the large consensus of the villagers.
About a year before that, her stepdaughter had already spread rumours about her practicing witchcraft, she said.
Witch hunting is surprisingly common among some of the indigenous tribes in parts of northeast India, a vast Eastern Himalayan region of eight states that shares multiple boundaries with China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Lack of education, little to no access to reasonable health care and years of administrative neglect have fostered local beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft to prevail well into the 21st century.
According to a local women’s rights group, North East Network (NEN), accusing someone of practicing witchcraft is an easy scapegoat in property disputes or conflict over material wealth within the family. At least, 193 people had been killed in witch hunting incidents till 2017.
Earlier this month, a 50-year-old widow in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district was killed after she was accused of practicing witchcraft, causing the death of two women in the village. A 28-year -old man, who protested the decision of the kangaroo court that found the woman guilty, was also beaten to death. In Meghalaya’s West Khasi Hills district, an-80 year-old man was buried alive allegedly by his nephews and others after they suspected him of practicing witchcraft. They blamed him for their children falling ill.
After he got word that things were heating up in his sister’s village, Harnath rushed to Naguapara to try and talk it out with the locals. “But they were not willing to listen and had already surrounded her house with daos (a long, curvy sword) in their hands,” he said.
Harnath too was beaten up and narrowly escaped with his life that night.
Rabha ran through the jungles, crossing the border and ended up in Assam, where she tried to register a police report. Following their trail, the residents from Naguapara showed up.
“I was made to sign a paper, which said that I have agreed to divorce my husband and have been compensated with Rs 20,000 (USD 270)”, said Rabha. Fearing for her life, she had no other choice but to compromise.
Assam has a local witch hunting law, Prevention and Protection from Witch Hunting Act, which was passed in 2015, but came into effect in 2018.
Apart from the law, activists and government stakeholders said that a concerted awareness drive in remote tribal areas has helped to check the menace in the last few years.
Birubala Rabha, Founder of the NGO Birubala Mission, have been working on the issue of witch hunting for close to two decades now. She herself once believed in local healers until a village quack could not cure her son’s illness and realised he was responsible for women being labelled “witches”.
Birubala said that the law has been helpful and they have raised much awareness in 11 districts on the severity of the punishment that witch hunting can attract. “But real change will only happen when people have a change of heart and mind about this superstition of witchcraft,” she said.
While Birubala firmly believes “witches” do not exist, Rabha has a more favourable dispensation towards the supernatural arts, evidenced from her little book of spells. Her place of worship, is an eclectic assortment of a Hindu God, a trishul (trident), a rudraksha (prayer beads) and queerly carved stones with tulsi (basil) leaves placed on it. She described possessing powers of Hindu God Vishnu, believed to be the preserver and protector of the universe.
His sister, said Harnath, was drawn to sorcery after losing a son from her first marriage and two kids from her second. They all died during the epidemic outbreaks of malaria and Japanese encephalitis, which are routinely common in these parts.
“People in Naguapara would come with their ailments, like numbness in their body or shortness of breath. I would make amulets to protect them from evil eye,” said Rabha.
But despite her powers being a local legend, the tide slowly shifted against her when her step daughter started spreading rumours in the village. “My stepdaughter resented me since the day I married her father and came to the village in 2001. She did not feel the need for her father to marry again since she was old enough to care for the household,” Rabha told VICE News.
Rabha, also, claimed to possess land and plantation properties like teakwood, sal, rubber and betel nut in her husband’s village.
Leaving behind her children, who were only six and nine then, was the most difficult thing for Rabha, a consequence that she’s had to live with to this date. “She [stepdaughter] told my kids that I was a witch, who was evil and that they should stay away from me,” said Rabha.
Keeping them with her wouldn’t have been easy either, since the stigma has followed her everywhere. When she first shifted to her brother’s home, she had to pay a fine of Rs 4000 (USD 54).
“In our culture, a marriage is between not just two individuals but villages. Since there was no reconciliation between the two villages, the burden fell on her,” Harnath explained to VICE News.
The year she left, Rabha had nothing but the clothes on her back from the night she escaped the village. “I sold off whatever little jewellery I had and did daily wage labour,” she said. “In the winter, I used to wear a gunny sack to keep warm.”
She met Birubala a year later, hoping that the activist, who by then had cultivated a reputation for taking on “witch hunters”, might help to win back her children and properties.
However, her “divorce” and the police jurisdiction came in the way of securing any justice.
“I took a police officer from Assam with me to Meghalaya but the concerned police officer was under too much pressure from the locals,”Birubala told VICE News .
The 71-year-old activist, who has been widely credited for the criminalisation of witch hunting in Assam, feels that she could not get Rabha justice despite her best efforts.
Among several measures, the 2018 law also entitled complainants (or the next of kin) to receive compensation, rehabilitation and counselling. However, activists told VICE News that no has ever received any compensation.
Anurita Hazarika, Director of NEN, said that sections of the law regarding compensation have not been adequately publicised. “You need more coordination between the police and the social welfare department. The FIR (police report) has to be forwarded to the District Legal Services Authority, which releases the money,” Hazarika explained to VICE News. “The state women’s commission can facilitate this but the coordination is lacking.”
Kaveri Sharma, a member of the Assam State Women’s Commission told VICE News that they coordinate with the district women’s cell that makes an appeal to the Deputy Commissioner for the payment of compensation. “We can help in speeding up such requests but these things take time,” she said.
Some argue that to address the issue, one should look beyond rehabilitation. “Just financial support from government departments is not enough. An individual cannot remain an island. Women who are labeled witches are not allowed to visit social gatherings. It’s not a very happy life for them,” Kuladhar Saikia, former Director General of Police in Assam who launched a police community collaborative initiative for prevention of witch hunting in 2001, told VICE News.
Fifteen years after her ouster, Rabha no longer wishes to go back to Naguapara. Her husband, who she fondly remembered as “extremely beautiful” and good to her, died in 2008. Over the years, however, she did sneak into her village several times to meet her children, who slowly opened up to her.
“Every time I meet them, we all get very emotional,” she said.
Her son is completing high school and her daughter is studying law. Having wandered for years in exile before settling in her brother’s courtyard, where she herself laid the bricks of her house, Rabha is content even though whispers of her supernatural abilities still do the rounds in Besorkona.
“My daughter visited just a few days back. She brought me this gift,” she said, proudly showing off the blue mekhala that was draped around her slender bodice in the traditional Rabha style.
Rabha said that as her kids grew older, they slowly came to realise what the stepdaughter had done to her.
“Shortly after the death of her husband, the locals had beaten her black and blue,” Rabha said. This time, it was she who was suspected of being a witch.
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