Hira Ravha’s picturesque home lies at the edge of a large tea plantation, a short walk from the main bazaar of Lela village in Assam’s Goalpara district. Flanked by a row of trees, her small hut is the abode of her husband, two children, her old mother, three dogs, four cats and a dozen chickens. Under a shed stands a rickshaw that her husband plies, alongside plants of radish, carrots and cabbage that they sell to sustain themselves.
But nobody in her own village buys vegetables from her garden. That’s because they all believe she is a witch. “When I walk on roads, children keep running away from me, shouting, “Here comes Hira dainee” (the Assamese term for a witch),” says Ravha, 35, a tall woman with confidence sparkling in her eyes, and sharp features. She is not the only one who has been branded a witch. In almost every village in her area, a woman (and sometimes, a man) is designated a "witch who practises black magic", and on whose shoulders lies the blame of every famine, disease, death and misfortune faced by the villagers.
Witch-hunting is a long-standing prevalent practice in the state. ‘Witches’ like Ravha face social boycott and, in some cases, death by mob lynching. According to reports, at least 193 people were killed in the period 2001-2017 because of such allegations, almost always at the instance of witch doctors or quacks—called ojha, bez or deodhani—whom the villagers turn to due to lack of adequate healthcare facilities.
Ravha’s life changed on the day of Bihu around five years ago, when she went to a neighbour’s home for puja. The next day, a man in the household fell ill and an ojha (witch doctor) was summoned to fix him of the ‘curse’. “The ojha first kept the sick man in a fishing net to capture the bad spirit causing him problems. Then he came to my home, found the excreta of one of my cats, and fed it to him,” Ravha tells me, sitting on a plastic chair surrounded by her family and pets.
After eating the cat poop, the man regained his consciousness. And Ravha was ‘proven’ as someone who practices witchcraft on her neighbours.
“From then on, I became an easy target for every ojha in the village. Whenever someone drank too much liquor, lost consciousness or got jaundice , it was pinned on me.” Whenever a neighbour’s cow died or an accident occurred in the village, it was on Ravha too. When a local temple priest accidentally burnt his hair, he told the villagers it happened because she had visited the temple. Another time, a drunk neighbour came to her home, fell down on the steps, and started shouting, “This witch is devouring me, save me.”
A year later, a man claimed that a local deity Banubhashi Maa had possessed him and in his trance, described Ravha as the one causing all disease and death in the village. The possessed man also supported the temple priest’s claim that it was Ravha who caused his hair-burning accident. Priests across religious lines began using her name if they couldn’t cure people’s diseases. “Once an ill person went to a Muslim witch doctor in the nearby village, who also had his own temple at home,” she tells me. “He stopped the man from entering his own temple as he said he carries with him the curse of Hira dainee on his head”.
After this turn of events, their family suffered on all fronts. They do not get invited to anyone’s home, and their children face the taunts of being offspring of a witch. The biggest loss, however, is economic. “Nobody buys vegetables from our farm anymore. I sometimes go to other villages to sell them, but there are few takers,” says Ravha, adding that some of her well-wishers have also severed their relation with the family, as talking to her can bring disrepute to them.
Her family is altogether clueless about the reasons behind the rumours. “But it’s probably because we migrated from another village and are the only ones in our neighbourhood without any relatives here,” they suspect. “Being poor also makes them think they can get away with it,” says Ravha. Some have told her that it might be people from the tea plantation plotting to usurp her little home on the edge of a tea garden, or a jilted lover who wants to defame her.
Her husband, though, suspects that his friendship with a local gang leader might be the reason. “He fought with some of our neighbours,” she says. Her husband adds, “Now they probably dislike us because they think we are friends with their enemy. These things are taken seriously here.” And then there are threats to kill her off whenever she gets out on the street. “Men tell me that they would set me on fire or bury me alive. Once a man came towards me with a knife and asked me, “Should I cut you into pieces right now?”
According to her husband, Ravha is the one in the family who shoulders the twin responsibility of running the home and growing vegetables in the farm. “We have our own little world in which we try to do the best for our children.” Ravha’s 75-year-old mother also lives with them, and not with the rest of her ten children. “Four of them are boys but they are busy in their lives. It’s my youngest daughter who talks to me and takes care of me,” says her mother, before she brings us a plate of betel nut leaves to welcome me as per their tradition.
As I get ready to take my leave, the whole family comes to see me off to the end of their lane, with their neighbours peeping suspiciously. Before I leave, I ask Ravha why she doesn’t leave this village and go somewhere else. “We depend on the cops and the members of Mission Birubala who protect us from our neighbours,” she says. “Though I feel scared every day, we don’t have the resources to leave. Where else would would we go?”
This story is 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. Watch out for the next instalment which'll be out next Monday.
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