One day in 2013, while he was in the shower, Anali answered a call on her husband’s phone. She heard a woman speaking ‘strange things’ on the other end, but she kept listening. She didn’t tell her husband. The next day, she asked her daughter to investigate and find out who the number belonged to. Within a week, she found out it was Geeta Khakholari’s from Sialmari, a nearby village in Assam. Her husband was having an extra-marital affair. Once again.
“He has always been like this, running after women,” says 42-year-old Anima Basumatary, called Anali by everyone in Dudhnoi village in Goalpara district of Assam, where she lives with her daughters. She had met her husband, now serving in India’s Border Security Force (BSF), on her way to school when she was 15. “He was in a relationship with another girl at the time, but I fell in love with him. When our family found out, they got us married.” Through their 30-year-long marriage, her husband has been in several relationships with other women in Shillong, Manipur and West Bengal during his various postings.
His affair with Geeta, however, would not just end up playing with her emotions. It would also force Anali to run for her life. In the six years following the phone call, Anali watched her husband’s mistress and her family work really hard to brand her a witch, leading to a boycott from society as well as an attempt to kill her. “The worst part is that it has affected the life of my two daughters as well. Nobody wants to marry the daughters of a dainee (Assamese for witch). Few even shy away from eating with us.”
Witch-hunting is a prevalent practice in Assam and neighbouring states among many tribal communities. The ones accused of witchcraft face abuse, social boycott and, in some cases, death by mob lynching. According to reports, at least 193 people have been killed between 2001-2017 because of such allegations, almost always after the involvement of witch doctors or quacks called ojha, bez or deodhani, whom the villagers turn to due to a lack of adequate healthcare facilities.
In Anali’s case, her branding began with a lot of drama. After she found out about her husband’s affair with Geeta, she tried stopping him from going to Sialmari, to which he obliged. Once when he was home on his Bihu holiday, she picked up his constantly ringing phone, “Where is my jijaji (brother-in-law)? My sister has been crying. What magic have you done on your husband?” It was Geeta’s elder brother. An hour later, close to midnight, he came to their village with two boys, and insisted they take her husband along. He went with them.
Anali later found out that Geeta had planned a series of theatrics for that night. First, she started crying in pain, leading to the villagers to call an ojha. With all the villagers of Sialmari as audience, Geeta started talking as if she was possessed by Anali. “I am Anali. I learnt black magic from an old man who comes to my home. I will destroy Geeta and her family with my powers,” Geeta announced to villagers. “She then declared that she (Anali) had had an affair with Nitu Dhingri, a boy in the village, and had sexual encounters with a lot of other men,” Anali tells me, while feeding her pet chickens.
When the ojha, a respected figure in the village, confirmed that Geeta had indeed been possessed by Anali, she was ‘proven’ a witch.
“The good part is that the people in my village—most of them labourers from neighbouring states, whom I help a lot—didn’t believe it,” says Anali. However, people from Sialmari started plotting to hunt her down. “My daughter warned me and told me to go to my aunt’s home for some days. She said I had been declared a witch in another village. Everyone apart from us knew about it.” She later found out that some people from Sialmari had been lurking in her village to burn her down along with her home. “Geeta’s brothers also threatened to kill me.”
After coming back to Dudhnoi, Anali went to meet the ojha who was responsible for branding her. He denied doing so. When Anali threatened she would take him to police, he threatened her saying, “Then I will also give my statement against you,” and ‘advised’ Anali to settle her dispute with Geeta.
Through the whole episode, what Anali felt most was let down by her husband. He never tried to defend her, and instead told their daughters that their mother ‘might’ be practising witchcraft. “When I told him I wanted to file a case and involve the cops, he told me he would break my legs. He was more concerned about Geeta losing her money in legal proceedings than my life.” Over the next few days, they were completely estranged. Whenever he came back from his holidays, he would spend time with his ‘new family’.
In the years that followed, more people (Geeta’s friends and relatives) blamed Anali for their misfortunes. She finally filed a police complaint with the help of activists working with an organisation called Mission Birubala, run by Birubala Rabha, an internationally-feted human rights activist who has provided support and protection to hundreds of ‘alleged’ witches in Assam.
Years later, Anali still lives under the threat of being killed for being a witch. “I lie awake till 3 AM each night. Some passersby throw stones at our home sometimes.” Her younger daughter lost a year in school because she couldn’t concentrate on studies, and keeps crying in fear that her mother will be burnt alive.
Anali, who has been the secretary of a social organisation in her village, says her husband has stopped giving them money. “I keep taking loans from rural banks and earn money by taking tenders for managing labourers for work on construction sites.” Later, some of her friends were also accused of witchcraft—for which Anali feels responsible.
She believes the whole motive of her being branded a witch was to acquire her home and property. “Geeta had left her husband because he didn’t have money. Her family now wants to drive us out of our home, so they can usurp it.” However, she says she won’t let them win. “I have faced a lot, but I know that I am not going to back down. I am ready for the fight.”
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, and check out the previous one here .
Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter .