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Witch hunting unabated in Assam.

Kokrajhar: It pains Ranjeeta Basumatary, her husband Jishan and three children to revisit what happened to them five years back.

Basumatary, a Lower Primary (LP) School teacher, was accused of being a witch and beaten up badly with bamboo sticks after a Bodo boy in Daifangkhuti, a non-descript hamlet in Darrang District of Assam State, lost his mental balance.

The villagers including Jishan's elder brother Saimal alleged that Bodo boy turned insane due to black magic done by Ranjeeta, a daini (witch in local parlance). Hundreds of people stormed her seven-room house and attacked her viciously. Even a group of All Bodo Student Union (ABSU) and Bodo Women Justice Forum (BWJF) which turned up to rescue her, was pelted with stones.

Somehow a bleeding Ranjeeta was carried to a hospital in ambulance and ended up getting several stitches. Since then she has lived on the outskirts of Udalguri, a town about eight kilometres from her village.

Her seven-room house which she and her husband Jishan, a clerk in district school inspector's office, built in Daifangkhuti for over one million rupees, stands deserted and dilapidated today. The windows and doors are broken and rusted. Their 10-bigha land has been encroached by a village muscleman. She claims her case was never heard in the court. "I am very pained. I've not got justice. My house has turned into ruins. I can't even visit my place," she regrets with a lump in her throat.

Ranjeeta's husband Jishan can still not comprehend why his family had to go through such a trauma. "We don't know any jantar-mantar (occult science). There was no evidence against us," he claims. Their teenage daughter Deobra misses the village life but cannot do anything about it.

In October last year when Ranjeeta, Jishan and Deobra went to the village to cast their ballots during the State Assembly polls they had to beat a hasty retreat. "We saw the people who had attacked us and ran away," Ranjeeta recounts with fear subduing her vocal chords.

Yet Ranjeeta, a Baptist Christian, considers herself lucky to have escaped with a few stitches. Many in her neighbouring villages and districts got killed after being pronounced daina (male version of witch) and daini. "They killed one family in Nalbari District and another old man in another village. It is very frightening," she reminisces thanking her stars.

Despite the efforts of civil and police authorities in Assam, the menace of witch hunting continues to claim lives in the State as the 60 odd tribal communities still do not have easy access to education and medical facilities and are dogged by superstitions.

Villagers in the interiors in particular look up to Ojhas (known as kavirajs in local parlance) every time somebody from among falls sick. The kaviraj relies on concoctions of various local herbs. But when the herbs do not work, he either blames it on a rival Kaviraj or some old couple.

This is what happened in Basugoti, a village in Chirang District of the State on November 23. According to Jakir Hussain Kandakar, police investigator of the case, Ruma Rabha, a Kaviraj in the village, blamed Lakhiram and Naleb Brahma for the spread of diseases in the village. "The Ojha told the Bodo youths that till the Brahmas were there, nothing right would happen in the village and his medicines would not work," Kandakar claimed in a conversation with this correspondent. The Brahmas were abducted and taken to a forest. They were tied to a tree and lynched. The accused, two of them including Rabha since arrested, even video recorded the killing. This was the second incident of witch hunting in the current year. The first incident took place in a village of the Kokrajhar District.

The incidents have taken place at a time when state authorities were thinking that they have seen the last of the sordid practice. It is a stark reminder that the superstition continues to dog the tribes inhabiting four districts of the State - Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Bakas - which comprise Bodoland Tribal Areas Districts (BTAD) and ruled over by Bodo People's Front (BPF). Except Law and Order and Relief and Rehabilitation which are handled by the State Government, all subjects are administered by the BPF in the BTAD.

In 2011, over 17 people were murdered in 10 cases of witch hunting in the BTAD. Over half of these deaths were reported from Kokrajhar, a district which serves as headquarters of BTC (Bodo Territorial Council). Since mid 90s, when such murders began surfacing, over 65 deaths have been reported. Constrained by the continuance of the sordid practice, Kokrajhar police launched project Prahari to educate the villagers in 2001. Earlier this year, the police announced to replace project Prahari with project Mother. But even six months later, it has remained an announcement with police showing no signs of executing the project.

Pratibha Brahma (picture), a social activist in Kokrajhar, who has for long documented and campaigned against witch hunting, attributes its continuation to toothless laws and poor health facilities available in the interiors of the BTC. "There are no laws to deal with witch killing. Under section 323 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), the accused can get away with just three months of jail," she points out demanding legislation of a separate law to deal with it. She demands better medical facilities for the villagers saying that as long as people relied on Kavirajs it might not be possible to end the scourge.

Brahma also blames witch hunting on property disputes. "Many of the old couples branded witches and killed in the past had no children. Obviously the witch hunting was an attempt to grab their property," she says, a claim endorsed by local journalist Preetam Brahma. Pratibha also sees an immediate need for reforms among the Bodos and other tribes.

Anjali Daimary, President of BWJF, underlines lack of health facilities as the basic reason behind the malaise. Daimary recounts an incident of May last year where an old couple was beaten to death in Udalguri after a local Ojha failed to cure a young woman of jaundice. "The Nepali Kaviraj blamed the ineffectiveness of his treatment in the woman's case on the old couple. The couple was killed. When we took the woman to a hospital, she was diagnosed with anemia and jaundice," she recalled.

The BTC administration has organized several medical camps in the last few years. In April this year, the BWJF marched through villages to educate people against witch hunting. But apparently, the campaigns have had little success in removing the superstition in the interiors. "It's a belief, very difficult to remove the minds of the local people," admits Daimary, who is part of the BPF.

However, the campaign does seem to have made an impact in villages near towns or highways. This correspondent interacted with many Bodos in Amguri, a village on the outskirts of Kokrajhar. They feigned ignorance about the daini culture. "We don't believe in Daini anymore," chorused Somesor and Roopali Bogoyari (pictures), a young couple busy in working on their rice crop.

Ironically Ojha nee Kaviraj or the exorcist who is mainly seen behind branding witches in tribal villages is identical to witches when it comes to practicing his craft. The superstition is that both the witch and the Kaviraj frequent burial places and uses plants, herbs, spittle and ashes of the dead in preparing their concoctions. They use pieces of black cloth and nails to exorcise spirits. The superstition is that the daynis can manifest through black cats, newts and snakes and look faceless at will.

Box to go with the report:

Witchcraft in Indian Literature

Witch hunting is not limited to the BTAD alone. It extends to many other districts of the Assam and even several other states - Tripura, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh - of India.

All India Democratic Women Association (AIDWA), an organization headed by Communist Party of India (Marxist) Lawmaker Vrinda Karat, rescued Subhadra Basumatary, a 40 year-old Bodo woman from Tilapara village of Goalpara District of Assam in August 2000. Basumatary was branded a witch by an Ojha after she demanded share in property of her late father. Deb Burma, an AIDWA activist in Tripura, however, was not so lucky. She was killed after having been branded a witch.

Like Tripura, the tribals in Jharkhand, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal too have been taking recourse to sorcery when their kith or kin fall ill. The history of witchcraft in India in these states has given birth to several books - fictional or otherwise. K S Singh, former Director General of Anthropological Survey of India, has extensively dealt with witch craft in Bihar in his book called aACAyPeoples of India Project'.

A former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of West Bengal descent A B Chaudhury has documented witch killings among Santhals in Malda District of the State in his book titled aACAyWitch Killings amongst Santhals'. Similarly late Manoranjan Lahary, a Bodo litterateur, dramatized witch killings of Assam in his novels Haynamuli (1985) and Dayni (2005).

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 2, 2013
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