As the headlines announce “President Ram Nath Kovind gives nod to Assam’s Anti-Witch Hunting Bill”, stories of deaths due to witchcraft go unnoticed in fora for human rights. According to some news sources, out of 1,700 women killed in Assam since 2006, 80 were due to witch-hunting. Another report states that between 2001 and 2017, 193 people – 114 women and 79 men – have been branded as witches and killed. The Chief Minister of Assam has directed the superintendents of police to make sure that these cases of atrocity against women do not go unnoticed while the Government of Assam has asked the honourable Guwahati High Court to establish a fast-track court so that justice can be delivered at the earliest.
During one of my visits to a tea estate in Assam’s Bamunbari (Tingkhong), I came across the story of an old widow. She was a permanent worker in a tea estate. After losing her husband couple of weeks ago, she received ₹3 lakh from the tea estate since her husband too had been a permanent worker there. One day, in front of her house, a person fainted. The person was taken to a quack who used sorcery to treat him. Days passed by. Another day, another person fainted in front of the same woman’s house. This time, when he was taken to the quack, he declared that the lady was a witch and was bringing bad omen into the village to destroy other’s lives. In order to cure this, the witch must be killed. The villagers took up their weapons, broke into her house, dragged her out and mercilessly beat her to death. The practice of witch-hunting is widespread in tribal communities. The Adivasis working in the tea estates of Assam are mostly Santhals, Mundas and Oraon (Kuruk) who were brought from far-off areas in Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand which are ruled by the customary laws, and where the village chief acts as the judiciary. In such places, any vulnerable woman involved in a case pertaining to personal vengeance, land dispute or even a minor conflict is more likely to be labelled as a witch. She becomes the victim of gruesome consequences which include stripping her in public, teeth and nails being ripped off, or being burnt or beaten to death.
Nirpendra Kumar, former Gandhi Fellow and educationist says, “If you have to understand their issue, you have to understand intersectionality first. A woman from a Brahmin family just bears the problems of patriarchy. But a woman from a marginalized community has to bear the wrath of patriarchy along with the interdependent systems of social stigmatization that comes with her class, caste or creed. So only blaming their customary laws will be unjustified as their law is enforced by a patriarchal mindset that exploits a vulnerable woman in a kyriarchy.”
Ajay Gowalla, a resident of the tea estate says, “You know very well how much our families earn. When people fall sick, they run to the quack rather than going to the doctor because they can’t pay the bill. Therefore, this has developed a very strong notion in the minds of the people that a quack’s sorcery can quickly heal a person. They neither go to the doctor nor believe in science. Once the quack says someone is responsible for their disease and label someone a witch, the whole village unites to eradicate that witch in the most atrocious way.” Most of these killings are motivated by property or money held by the victim.
On asking Rahul Sutabanshi, about the death of the old widow, he says, “This case may look simple but is murkier in reality. Both the old man and the woman were permanent labourers. Upon the demise of the old man, the old woman received ₹3 lakh from the tea estate. Some villagers are speculating that her son planned this whole event. They think that if the old widow died, the son would get ₹3 lakh for his father’s death and another ₹3 lakh for his mother’s death. He appears to be the sole beneficiary of this vicious episode.” Rahul is a student and an activist who catalyzed anti-witch hunting campaigns with his sister Gargi and fellow comrades in the adivasi colonies of Tingkhong.
Often, these cases do not find any space in police FIRs. A police official says, “These incidents take place inside the tea estate in the labour lines which is isolated. These cases have to be referred to us through the officials. Since the estates are run by powerful people and the victim are so weak and vulnerable, no one dares to take up these cases. In such a situation, we have very little to do.” Rahul Sutabanshi adds, “Firstly, a tea estate is an isolated territory. Secondly, you can often find that the perpetrators have very cordial relations with union leaders or politicians. At times, the police are even bribed by the perpetrators not to register the case. Therefore, even if the SHO thinks of filing a complaint based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, one call from the local leader or few currency notes and the complaint paper will vanish.”
In some of the most progressive societies, even the educated fall into the trap of hearsay rumours. I was told that during the summer of 2007, rumours spread across Assam that there were witches who went to people’s houses during the noon asking for onions and then sucked people’s blood (quite similar to the 1990s urban legend from Karnataka named ‘Nale Ba‘). The same educated people went on to put religious signs and symbols in front of their houses to shoo away those witches. Could anyone in this big state really spot even a single ‘witch’ who drank blood under the scorching sun? I wonder.
(Sumantra Mukherjee is a National Media Fellow, and this article is a part of his work which is supported by National Foundation for India.)