EMPOWER PEOPLE Blog
Bigiram Narzary and wife Urbushi.
Witch-hunts, occult practices and an age-old tradition of animal sacrifice. Assam's social landscape continues to be locked in an uneasy coexistence between the modern and the barbaric. Over 10 people have been killed in witch-hunts this year. Black magic practitioners, called bej or ojha, still hold sway in wide swathes of tribal-dominated areas in the state. And faith often becomes a fig leaf to victimise opponents and settle personal scores.
On October 8, in Jaraiguri in Kokrajhar district, Bigiram Narzary, 60, and his wife Urbushi Narzary, 55, were stoned to death by people who alleged the couple was responsible for a number of deaths in the village in the past few months. On October 9, a seven-year-old child was reportedly sacrificed inside the camp of the 121 Border Security Force (bsf) Battalion at Paharinagar in West Garo Hills district, Meghalaya. The body was mutilated, the stomach cut into pieces and incense sticks forced into the forehead. Police said two bsf jawans and a tantrik from Mankachar, Assam, were involved.
The six charged with killing Binanda Gaur and his family
Most witch-hunts reported this year were from Kokrajhar, Udalguri and Sonitpur districts. The practice is also prevalent in Kamrup (rural), Goalpara, Chirang, Baska, Lakhimpur and Karbi Anglong districts. The districts are marked by rampant illiteracy, poor accessibility and a severe lack of basic infrastructure, including in health care, education, sanitation, and potable water. Inevitably, locals fall back on ojhas and bejs to heal and, often, bring the dead back to life.
On October 9, Akkas Ali from Juria in Nagaon district was declared dead by doctors of snake bite. His family invited several ojhas who claimed they could revive him. In a similar case in Guwahati on September 20, ojhas attempted over three days to revive a 45-year-old woman, Sarala Devi, who died of snake bite. Her body was finally placed in a raft and set afloat on the Brahmaputra. "Someday, some ojha might find the body and bring her back to life," says a relative.
Branding someone a witch is often an excuse to settle scores, or gain at another's expense. "Some alleged witch-killings are nothing but the handiwork of the land mafia," says a police officer in Sonitpur district.
On June 22, police in Sonitpur found four bodies dumped in a ditch in Monabarie Tea Estate, Asia's largest. The bodies of Binanda Gaur, 46, his wife Karishma Gaur, 36, daughter Naina, 15, and a neighbour Manglu Mour, 14, bore multiple injury marks and the faces were burned with acid. Karishma and Naina had been declared witches by the plantation workers. Tiku Orang, one of those arrested, admitted they were instigated by a man named Surat Modi to accuse Binanda and his family members of practising witchcraft, causing plantation workers to fall sick. But Binanda's wife and daughter were the real targets. Both were raped before being killed.
Official reports say from 2001 to date, 61 people have been victims of witch-hunts, including 39 Bodos and 22 Adivasis. Altogether 86 cases have been registered and chargesheets filed in 54 cases. But there has not been a single conviction yet. Those conducting witch-hunts often get away because there are no witnesses or it's difficult to pin the blame since a group of people are acting in unison.
A rise in animal sacrifices is another facet of superstitious practices in the state. There are over 100 temples in Assam where the practice is prevalent, including the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Numbers tell the story. At Bilweswar temple in Nalbari district, 20 buffaloes were sacrificed in 2010, but 32 have already been slaughtered this year. In Ugratara temple in Guwahati, the number increased from three to 13 over the corresponding period. Sources say 500 goats, 200 ducks and pigeons were sacrificed at Devi Doul in Sivasagar during Ashtami Puja this year. "Honestly speaking, it's impossible to stop this practice. All we can try is to reduce the numbers," says Bibhab Talukdar, head of Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based ngo.
Several pressure groups and ngos are combating witch-hunts to little effect. In June this year, the All Bodo Students Union launched an awareness campaign in Kokrajhar. "Such campaigns will never be effective if the root causes of the menace-lack of education and health care-are not taken care of," says Indranee Dutta, director, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development.
In 2001, Kula Saikia, the then dig (Western Range) of Assam Police, initiated a project called Prahari in Kokrajhar to intensify the drive against witch-hunting and run campaigns among the village chiefs and elders. The project has been virtually grounded for the last two years. "It had worked wonders in tackling the menace and must be revived," says Thebla Basumatary, a Kokrajhar resident. "It's not correct to say that cases of witch-hunting have risen. Due to Project Prahari and media spotlight, cases are being reported now," says Saikia.
The Assam State Women's Commission has initiated the process towards a law to deal with witch-hunting on the lines of those in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. A three-member committee, that includes Saikia, was constituted to prepare a draft to be submitted to the government. It has met twice so far.
Published in IndiaToday