By Syeda Ambia Zahan for Youth Ki Awaaz:
If you take the muddy, potholed Agiya-Lakhipur road to Tikirkilla Block on the Assam-Meghalaya border, you are bound to come across Khasipara, which houses within its limits the only ‘witch village’ in India – Dainigaon (village of witches), where 75 ‘witches’ and their families live.
Nestled in the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya, 170 km from Guwahati, no government scheme ever reaches Khasipara. In fact, asking for directions elicits only blank stares. But utter “Dainigaon” and eyes light up. However, even then nobody has much to say except that no matter what, make sure you’re out of Dainigaon before the sun goes down.
Branding a woman a witch is not rare in Assam and Meghalaya. The number is quite high in the border districts of Goalpara and Dhubri in Assam, dominated by Rabha and Bodo tribes, and in the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya, dominated by the Garo people.
It’s always one person who – out of enmity, jealousy or with an intention to grab property or a possession – starts the witch hunt, which is then picked up by others. From thereon, the mob takes over. The target is blamed for any and every calamity that befalls the village – floods, ailments, damage to crops, loss of livestock, attacks by marauding wildlife, you name it.
Once accused of practising witchcraft, the hapless woman is either raped and banished or killed to save the village from her ‘spells’ and ‘black magic’.
As per a report by the Assam government, at least 93 cases of witch-hunting have been reported in various police stations of Assam between 2010 and 2015. As many as 77 people were killed and 60 assaulted in these cases.
Some, who survived the ire of fellow villagers, found their way to Khasipara, and Dainigaon. Among them is Sironi Rabha, 60, who was chased away from Konapara village in West Garo Hills district.
Sironi does not remember the exact year she was branded a witch. All she remembers is she was 20 then. Her husband Lalmohan Rabha and mother too had to flee with her.
“The villagers of Konapara first targeted my mother, Proma Rabha. She was a vocal woman who stood up to men who battered their wives,” Sironi said. “The men of the village hated her.”
After Sironi got married and went to live in her husband’s village, some Konapara villagers attempted to grab her mother’s properties. Her mother resisted, and the villagers branded her a witch. She was taken forcibly and left in the middle of the dense forest on the other side of the river.
“My husband and I were living in Joyramkuch village of Goalpara. When we heard of what was done to my mother, we searched for her and found her in the jungle. It was a miracle she managed to stay alive there,” said Sironi.
“After that, my husband and I moved with my mother and started staying together in Dainigaon. I had no option to go back to Goalpara, as the villagers even branded me a witch,” said Sironi Rabha.
Jitai Rabha, 45, is another resident ‘witch’ of Dainigaon. She took shelter there after her entire family was hounded out of Dogordaha village in West Garo Hills in 1995.
“Twenty years ago, my mother Zabra Rabha was chased out. Then, the rest of us were made to leave, one after the other,” she said.
The inhabitants of the witch village grow their own vegetable and rice. Sometimes they can sell it in the local market of Belguri, but with restrictions. A few lucky ones are hired to work as labour in paddy fields and rubber plantations.
Thoukal Rabha, who was chased out of Assam’s Lakhipathar village in 2000, says that they do not let their children wander far from the house after 5 pm. “We are not seen as normal. Some say we are bad elements.”
Anti-witch activist Birubala Rabha claims that the children also do not go to school since they are seen as ‘bad breeds’. No one is willing to talk to them, nor about them.
“We do not know anything about them. They have been there for 50-60 years. You people better leave before it gets dark,” cautioned Nakuram Sangma, a Garo from Belguri.
The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015, which seeks to make witch-hunting a non-bailable, cognisable and non-compoundable offence, is still awaiting the approval of the union cabinet.
“The bill has not been cleared because it seeks non-application of anticipatory bill for the accused. We are pursuing it strongly because more such incidents are being reported,” said LS Changsan, Commissioner, Home Department.
Activists say merely putting an act in place may not bring out the desired result. Dibyajyoti Saikia, a Guwahati-based anti-witch hunting activist, said the big problem was reporting such cases to the police. In many cases, family members themselves refuse to do so.
“Even the police are reluctant to lodge cases for fear of media attention and then put pressure on them to nab the culprits. So, they register it under section 302 (murder),” says Saikia. He adds, “Since witch hunting is usually carried out by large mobs, it becomes very difficult to identify people, more so because the village protects its own.”
Superintendent of Police, West Garo Hills, Dr Raghabendra Kumar MG, appears to be clueless. “I do not know that such a village exists. I will enquire,” he told 101reporters.com.
This, after five members of a family were killed in Mrigre village of Rongram Block in West Garo Hills in January 2016 for practising witchcraft.
Conviction rates in witch-hunting cases in Assam and Meghalaya are miserably low. Of the 93 reported cases of witch-hunting between 2010 and 2015, charge-sheets were filed only in 60 cases. Although over 450 arrests have been made, there hasn’t been a single conviction.
Witch-hunting is not confined to Assam alone. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that 2,290 people — mostly women — were killed in India between 2001 and 2014 for alleged witchcraft, a superstition that feeds on itself, incestuous.
However, paranoia and superstition are so pronounced in Assam that this April, a couple in Lakhimpur district’s Moinaguri village was attacked and half-buried in a sand pit on the suspicion of practising witchcraft. The hapless husband-wife duo remained half-buried until the police arrived and helped them out.
As the anti-witch hunt bill lies on the backburner and activists’ efforts prove to be fool’s errands, there is little hope that this evil – which has been destroying lives, often literally – can be eradicated anytime soon.