The persecution of so-called witches as devil worshippers in England and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries coincided with the colonisation of Scotland and Ireland. The persecution of witches in India also coincided with the evangelical aspects of colonisation on this continent. This persecution continues today, in places like Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha and parts of South India.
The pristine, poor district of Goalpara, Assam, is a prime example. Counted amongst the 250 most backward districts of India in 2009, Goalpara was home to the self-sustaining fiefdom of the Rajbongsi kings till the 1880s.
According to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary, 80 women were killed between 2006 and March 2018 in witch-hunt related incidents in Assam. Mission Birubala, an NGO working to curb superstition, believed the number could be over 200.
Sitanath Lahkar is a retired principal of Cotton University and the director of Aei Maatite, a feature film on witch-hunting. He told me there were a few reasons why witch-hunting spread in Assam after the imposition of colonial rule. “First, modern medicine found it impossible to penetrate tribes. They continued to go to the women within a community that could heal with herbal medicine.”
Because many of these medicinal herbs had to be gathered at night, women who wandered into the woods became associated with witchcraft, he said. “Those once respected became hated.” As India industrialised, tribes were further marginalised. “Superstition and incorrect beliefs continue to perpetuate amongst them.”
Minakshi Bujarbaruah, a activist and researcher explained, “Amongst the tea tribes, women say that the practice of witch-hunting is quite common, even though the understanding of what qualifies one as a 'witch' might vary. Some say that there are many women who go out looking for work to other towns and cities, and if they choose to return, they are made to undergo a process of purification to prove their chastity.
“Sometimes, it goes to the extent of branding a woman a 'witch', perhaps to grab the income that she has brought back. Witch-hunting is also used as a way of disciplining, which sets an example for other women to strictly adhere to norms.”
Anurita P Hazarika, director of the non-profit North East Network, which researches witch-hunting in Assam, told me that “like any other tool, witch- hunting is used to control a woman—her mobility, her sexuality and her choices. It’s not limited to tribal communities alone either.”
Witch-hunting surfaced in the media in Assam with the rise to prominence of activist Birubala Rabha, who has worked along with the Assam Mahila Samata Society (AMSS). Mamoni Saikia, district program coordinator of AMSS began work in Goalpara in 1997. One of her first cases was that of Junali Rabha, of Borjora village. “She had been declared a witch because the village had faced crop failure. Junali was exiled and humiliated. Her daughter-in-law was also subjected to this, and branded a witch. Law enforcers reached only once the crime had already been committed. Surprisingly, old cases began to pile up on our desks. In the Junali Rabha case, we rehabilitated her in the same village. I got 40 people arrested for this. But the family continues to live in trauma and fear,“ says Saikia.
Saikia described meeting Birubala during the course of one mass community meeting in Thakurbila, in 2000. “I spoke to local rural women, encouraging them to speak out against atrocities committed in the name of a witch hunt. Not one woman said anything! What if someone were to report them back to their village folk? They faced isolation, punishment and expulsion. After having persuaded them for over two hours, Birubala shared her story. She had visited the local ojha [shaman], to cure her son of insanity. The ojha, a woman herself, had predicted that her son would die in three days time.”
That turned out not to be the case. The ojha, in retaliation according to Saikia, declared Birubala a witch. Saikia had her arrested, however Birubala continued to face threats. She began speaking out against witch hunts and superstition. In 2005, the Northeast Network nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Why Call Someone A Witch?
Hazarika claims property and wealth are a major factor in targeting victims. She explains, “In Assam, property reasons are triggers for women to be targeted as witches. When her relatives and family eye her property, she faces targeted violence. Additionally, women are seen as custodians of culture. So if a woman questions injustice, then the community, as a society feels threatened. Sometimes, marital reasons- like a rejected proposal of marriage- can trigger branding a woman a witch.”
NEN has worked closely with AMSS (and Partners of Law in Development) to look into causes. Gitarani Bhattacharya, the State Program Director agrees that property is a common enough cause, “Using superstition as garb, we have found that personal vendetta, primarily focused on property grabbing, emerge as the most influential factor presently. Targeting is also focused on poor, abandoned women or single women. Once we found a particular case in a Goalpara village, where diarrhoea and illness had killed many. Witch hunting was frequent here. When we tested water from the local pond we found it was unfit for drinking or washing. Since access to healthcare and government schemes is very difficult in remote villages, superstition takes over. ”
Buzarbaruah insists on a more nuanced understanding. “If we were to agree to property being the only reason then it becomes difficult to explain instances where even women without property have been branded as witches. Further, there are also examples where men have been branded the same….In a broader sense, I see this practice as a mechanism to control women within a particular societal norm, and limit their own choice autonomy and agency.”
Saikia argues that causes go beyond property and personal agenda. A village community might kill or hurt a so-called witch, but it too, is being manipulated. “I feel the main trigger is the ojha or bez [local soothsayer]. They channel different motives—from land grabbing, to traditional beliefs like crop failure, epidemics, death of animals—to deem a woman a witch. They use the community to commit a crime, inspiring a sense of pride in killing a witch.”
Targeting is also focused on poor, abandoned women or single women.
Lahkar argues for the complex role of community pride in witch hunting. “In 2015, in Biswanath Chariali, three Karbi youth had forced a 60 plus adivasi woman to parade naked, and then beheaded her. When police arrived here, they stood defiant of the law. They believed they had cleansed their community of evil. There is also the aspect of sexual crime against a woman, which I have focused upon in my film.”
So far, solutions have been slow to emerge, but activists steadily battle for these. “States like Rajasthan and Jharkhand have state laws against black magic or witchcraft related crimes. In Assam, a Bill was passed by the legislature but due process has been slow in moving forward,” rues Anurita. Research reports from the ground, led by the AMSS and similar research material by allied non profits, have been foundational to this bill being formed.
The state legislative assembly also passed a Bill in 2015, but laws are yet to be formed. “All we know is that the Bill has come back with some remarks by the President that need to be incorporated. As governments and priorities change, addressing witchcraft with a suitable law has taken a backseat,” says Gitarani Bhattacharya.
While police do intervene, tribal matters are often left to fend for themselves. Intervention and awareness building at the grassroot level, by fellow women workers, seems to be most effective in curbing witch hunting. It leads to thinking and resolution from within clannish tribes, with affinity for mutually shared traditions.
The malpractice of witch hunting emerges as contradictory in Assam, a state where women are typically more empowered than in most parts of India. While witch hunting might have emerged from mass panic within remote, disconnected and backward tribes historically, today, the malpractice is about perpetuating power. Unless poverty and holistic development of remote tribes and rural communities are addressed, a law alone will not limit witch hunting and violence against women.