Meet The People Trying to Keep Assam's ‘Witches’ Alive

Hunting the witch-hunters can be a deadly affair.

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Dec 3 2018, 5:33am

Gopen Basumatary (left) and Raju 

On a rainy night in 2003, in a village in Assam’s Kokrajhar district, social activist Raju Narzary got the shock of his life when he saw a group of around 20 young boys at his door. “They told me of their plans to kill an old man on suspicion of practising witchcraft, but wanted my permission before the murder,” says Narzary, then an activist associated with All Bodo Students Union, and now the executive director of a developmental organisation, the North East Research and Social Work Networking (NERSWN).

“A few eavesdropping boys had found the old man’s daughter worshipping nude at her home,” he tells VICE. “On being confronted, she confessed to doing this as a penance for her father whom she thought practices black magic.” At the risk of being killed by the group himself, Narzary denied ‘permission’ for the murder. “To show that I am on their side, I told them to wait till morning, keeping the bhoot in captivity. I assured them that if the charges were proved, I would kill the accused myself.” Next morning, his organisation informed the police, who saved the man. His daughter was found to be suffering from a mental illness.

In a large part of Assam, it’s not easy to support a man or woman who has been accused of witchcraft—a prevalent superstition which has taken the lives of at least 193 people between 2001-2017, almost always at the insistence of witch doctors or quacks, locally called ojha, bez or deodhani. Activists like Narzary have been walking a tightrope, working with villagers without becoming an enemy in their eye, alongside trying to understand the complex reasons behind the continued existence of witch-hunting practices and striving to abolish the practice.

Narzary believes that the problem can’t be solved overnight because most have been socially conditioned to believe in these customs. However, he also finds an economic angle directing the witch-hunting narrative. “I haven’t seen any rich person accused of witchcraft. It is always the most marginalised people who become easy targets, such as old men, dependent women, single mothers and women whose husbands have died or deserted them”.

In the majority of cases, the victims of witch-hunting are women. Chitralekha Baruah—an independent researcher, writer and consultant on women’s rights in Assam—says it’s a myth that women in north-east India are more empowered than those in the rest of the country. “They might sit in village meetings alongside men, but all decisions are taken only by males,” she says. “More often than not, they are even frowned on for just speaking in public meetings.”

According to her, it’s mostly independent and economically self-sufficient women who are branded as witches. A major target are the women who own property. “In one incident, a woman inherited property from her parents, instead of the closest male heir, her cousin. In a village meeting, she was branded as a witch and the land was seized by the community,” says Baruah.

Narzary believes that it’s mostly village communities who actively decide to brand a man or woman. “They have grown really smart with time,” he says. “Nowadays, they won’t directly call her a dainee (the Assamese term for witch), but will frame the victim through unexplained incidents like the destruction of crop or death of a cow”. Baruah adds that the activists who fight witchcraft often themselves face the danger of having the villagers turn against them. “When activists go to talk to villagers to save an alleged witch, they often tell their drivers to park their vehicle in a nearby place so they can easily run away if the need arises,” she adds.

According to Dr Natyabir Das—a medical practitioner and anti-witch-hunting activist in the town of Rangjuli—it is often the relatives or family members who brand someone a witch over property disputes, jealousy, and love affairs gone sour. “Often, witches are branded as part of a planned conspiracy against some old enmity,” he says. “In my experience, it ultimately takes three to four years of dogged rumour-mongering to establish someone as a witch.” Das is part of Mission Birubala, an organisation run by Birubala Rabha, an internationally-feted human rights activist who has provided support and protection to hundreds of ‘witches’ in Assam.

Matters take a more serious turn when the ojhas or bez (witch doctors) are involved. The quacks often work for the powerful and rich, and have the capability to mobilise a community against a person in a matter of hours. “These ojhas, who are very respected in tribal societies, never directly take someone's name, but give hints like the direction of their home and the trees outside their home, in order to avoid persecution.” Das, who tries to educate people about health problems, says that it’s ultimately the lack of healthcare facilities which still keeps the practice alive. “There are no hospitals or medical clinics in these villages. Where would people go if not to quacks and witch doctors?”

To create awareness about health facilities and consequently, fight witch-hunting rumours, Das keeps recruiting activists from among the villagers. Gopen Basumatary is one such activist. In a close-knit community in the village of Nabagram in Goalpara, he manages and runs a small tea garden. With some other “rational” inhabitants, he helps villagers in getting medical help for illnesses and accidents, while also organising religious events and social welfare activities. While a lot of goodwill pours in, he also gets taunted for helping ‘witches’.

“Many believe that it’s because of people like us that the same witches who bring them diseases are now prospering,” says Basumatary. “People often say that education has corrupted our mind. They feel that outsiders won’t understand their traditional religious framework, and they believe that witches are criminals who should be killed. The law and order here is run mostly according to the old traditions and superstitions.”

Saving the accused requires tact. “We either delay their plans or ask people to wait for gods to punish them. If a mob is about to attack a witch, we often go to the ojha responsible for branding her, and threaten they with a prison sentence if they doesn’t take their word back.”

To end the practice of witch-hunting, Basumatary suggests strict implementation of the newly-minted anti witch-hunting law that was cleared in July earlier this year. “If the accused are punished, people would be fearful before taking any extreme steps. Most of the perpetrators go scott-free due to their influence.” He also suggests sensitising and educating school teachers to fight superstition, as also inculcating scientific temperament among the school kids. “The need of the hour is to fight the culture of violence that seeped into north-east India during the times of insurgencies. It is only in the last 20-25 years that the alleged witches have been murdered. Earlier, the maximum punishment was social boycott.”

According to Baruah, a lot also boils down to sensitising the police officials in rural areas. “The new act that has been passed is really progressive, but its implementation is not going to be easy. Often, these police officers don’t want to interfere with what others think of as customs. But they need to be held accountable if anyone is killed as a witch under their watch.”

Das says that there aren't any shortcuts, as witch-hunting will be eradicated only through a sustained focus on development, especially healthcare. “You have to understand that these villages are different from your city areas. These people don’t have hospitals or medical clinics in their immediate surroundings. In such a scenario, whom would they turn to if not quacks and witch doctors?”

This story is the final part of a series that explores the lives of the “witches” in Assam post the anti witch-hunting law that was passed in July this year. Check out the previous ones here and here .

Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter .

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