Every region in India has unique social evils that are a product of a patriarchal mindset. These social evils are fraught with extreme forms of violence, mental and emotional harassment and often lead to social ostracization of the woman and her family. Assam and other Northeastern states, in general, have been portrayed as places where women are respected, empowered and comparatively live in safer environments. While this can seem to be true to many of us living here, but the facts say something else. Societies in the north-east are equally patriarchal if not less, giving rise to unique cases of violence against women.
Local newspapers in the English and Assamese languages carry stories and articles very frequently on witch-hunting cases in Assam. These stories are examples of gross violation of human rights and often found to be occurring in districts that are performing very poorly on most of the socio-economic indicators. Witch-hunting is so rampant in the state that a law was brought in to curb this menace.
The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act 2015 came into force in 2018 making any offence under the act as non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable to eliminate the superstition from society. The punishments are harsh looking at the magnanimity of the situation.
In recent times, news circulating on child lifters has caused a great ruckus in the larger NE society. This term is usually gender-neutral but innocent people have been lynched after falling prey to fake news. In 2016, two talented young musicians were killed at the hands of an angry mob after a WhatsApp forward circulated among the villagers that they are child-lifters/kidnappers. This incident took place in Karbi Anglong, Assam.
Unfortunately, witch-hunting in the state has worked on the lines of traditional beliefs that have been centuries old and despite the laws; such incidents do not seem to stop. A practice that is deeply patriarchal and evil mostly arises because of illiteracy, lack of access to education and age-old superstitious beliefs. Some even point out about the fascination with black magic, in a place called ‘Mayong’ not very far off from Guwahati in Morigaon district and is often nicknamed as the ‘land of black magic’.
It is scary and dark to even think about it, but the place attracts a lot of people every year. As popular folklore portrays, Mayong possibly has what common people term it as ‘witch doctors’ or ‘Oja’, who are known for curing possible witches that have been creating nuisance in the family or community.
Some of the most marginalised communities, like people from the tea tribe or the tribes from the nearby hilly areas, are found to be suffering the most because of these superstitious beliefs. Witch-hunting practices in many of these areas are also indicative of poor healthcare systems. A lack of awareness accompanied by poverty make these poor people more helpless and as a last resort, are found to be visiting ‘witch doctors’ who are nothing but quacks, for possible cure of diseases.
The highest cases of witch-hunting are often reported when women claim their right to ancestral property. These women after being branded a witch or daini are at the receiving end of torture, extreme forms of physical violence including rape and murder. As mob mentality is involved in punishing or beating up such women, it becomes an arduous task to identify the perpetrators.
The notion that women are safer in Assam compared to other big states is a farce as the data on crime against women paint a different picture. The Assam Police updates the statistics every year on different crimes and the trend of violence against women has been increasing at an alarming rate. Rape, trafficking, dowry deaths, cruelty by husband, the kidnapping of women/girls and molestation have been enlisted under heads of crime.
But, statistics on ‘witch-hunting’ as a crime has been missing. Young girls getting kidnapped trafficked and sold as brides to states like Haryana has been observed as one of the latest trends. This documentary by Al Jazeera explains in detail as to how skewed sex-ratio has aggravated crimes against women. Furthermore, the website provides numbers of crimes against women up to June 2020. The number surely looks under-represented as the whole country was under a lockdown in different phases and as reported the globe over, most of the domestic violence cases went unreported.
|Crimes against women||Numbers|
|Cruelty by husband||4679|
|Kidnapping of Women/girls||2221|
Assam made headlines last year for being the most unsafe place for women as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, as the state topped the list in the rate of crime against women. The crime rate stood at 166 (per lakh population) whereas the national average was 58.8 in 2018. Such sorry state of affairs is only going to deepen the pre-existing gender imbalance ensuring that they are systemically left out.
This year many eminent personalities from the state made it to the list of Padma awards. Birubala Rabha, who has been spearheading her campaign against witch-hunting for many years, bagged the Padmashree in 2021. She has been a victim of witch-hunting herself and today she is the face of ‘Birubala Mission’. In 2016, the New York Times released this short video on witch-hunting which presented disturbing details of this superstitious belief.
She hails from Thakurbila in Goalpara district along Assam-Meghalaya border in western Assam and has made her presence felt all over the world as a determined social worker who has managed to save many women from the atrocities and extreme harassment and hardship caused by this bizarre practice. The said mission started in 2011 and Birubala Rabha says that she will continue for her anti-witch hunting cause till her last breath.
The schemes surrounding empowerment of women under the Department of Social Welfare aims to work towards implementation of gender-sensitive programmes, laws and schemes through effective coordination in the states/union territories. The State Resource Centre for Women (SRCW) in consultation with some stakeholders aims to prepare State Action Plans for respective states/UTs with a focus on women’s issues. Yet, very little is written or planned to curb witch-hunting. The civil society is silent on this social menace which in real terms is gender-based violence.
It is about time, we recognised witch-hunting as a serious crime in North-East India because violence against women is systemic and not episodic!