By Alpaxee Kashyap:
Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft was not the first time when I heard about witches and witchcraft. In fact, I grabbed the book thinking I will read a story similar to the lullabies and bed time stories that rocked me to sleep as a kid. I was very scared and fascinated by the stories of ‘daini’ and ‘ojha’. A witch is called ‘daini’ in Assamese and believed to cause ailment to people, destroy crops and other livestock and is considered responsible for everything bad that happens. She is usually identified by an ‘ojha’, ‘bez’ or ‘deodhani’ (all names for witch doctors).
Born to working parents, I spent most of my early childhood with our helper, Moina (name changed) who comes from a village which is two hours away from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam.
In her understanding and knowledge, a ‘bez’ is a much better doctor than any medical science practitioner. She perceives medical science as a way to exploit and make people pay for unnecessary treatments. What baffles me is that it is not only Moina but many others, who I remember, recommended my younger brother to go to a ‘bez’ when he was suffering from jaundice.
Another lesson I remember as a kid is to be careful to not throw or leave even a strand of hair anywhere. If a ‘daini’ or witch gets hold of it, she can cause you harm, make you fall sick or even cause death. And Moina’s first complaint if I even coughed or had minor stomach trouble would be that I do not take care of my falling hair strands.
I used to hate a ‘daini’ and enjoyed stories of her being harmed or killed. And an ‘ojha’ was somewhat similar to a God-sent angel, who identified people under the spell of a witch. The patient, if suspected by the ‘ojha’ to be under the spell of a witch, is covered by a hunting net and poked with a sharp object till he/she names the witch.
In other cases the ‘ojha’ performs some religious rites to arrive at the description of the person practicing witch craft. Identified by this process, the alleged witch is then either lynched to death or forced to run away abandoning her family and property.
I remember once when Moina was ill and bedridden for days and could not come back to work, she blamed her old widowed neighbour who apparently offered her food. She told me the entire story of how she went to the ‘ojha’ and he helped her identify the witch. The entire village was forbidden from visiting her. Later, the village decided to attack the witch because more and more people were falling sick.
Now when I reflect back, I wonder why the ‘daini’ is always a woman. What rationale does it hold to blame a woman for causing all the bad fortune? Witch hunting is one of the less-talked about forms of violence against women and vulnerable single women or widows mostly fall prey to such superstitious practices. It leads to loss of many lives every single year. According to a recent study, there are 2018 reported deaths in India due to witch hunting from 2001 to 2012 . These could be, in all likelihood, under-reported estimates.
What unnerves me is the thought that the entire community sanctions the punishment meted out to the person being accused of witchcraft and the murderer is raised to the stature of a God sent Angel.
In a world where we would like to believe that science is advancing and education is trickling down along with time, what is difficult to digest is that reports say that the numbers are only rising!
The author is with policy, research and campaigns, Oxfam India
Note: The photo used is only for representational purposes