Sometime in 2010, Birubala Rabha thought she was going to die. Afloat the Brahmaputra, with a film crew who was interviewing her, the wooden boat suddenly capsized, throwing overboard the camera, a crew member and Rabha, 61 at the time. Gasping for breath, she somehow managed to swim to safety. “The water was very deep and I told myself, ‘Okay, today is the day I am going to die’,” Rabha chuckles at the memory more than a decade later. “But then again, I have never been afraid of death. And that is probably why I managed to live,” she adds.
It is this fortitude that has guided Rabha, Assam’s plucky crusader against witch-hunting, through a remarkable life. A life that was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri, last week. “I think this one is more special than the others,” Rabha says, at her home in Goalpara district, lined with mementos of different shapes and sizes. “I’m getting double the phone calls I usually do. But I am telling them, awards are well and good, but the point is for humans to help other humans, for us to be brave and unafraid.”
Just like Rabha has been through her 72 years of life. She wasn’t afraid when she travelled to a village in Meghalaya, in the dead of night, responding to a call of a woman accused of being a “daini” or witch by her neighbours, she wasn’t afraid when a mob surrounded her with daos (a flat-blade sword) and sticks, threatening to beat her up at the entrance of the village, and she wasn’t afraid when in 2000, in a public village meeting held to decide the fate of five women who were branded witches near Lakhipur in Assam, she stood up before hundreds and boldly announced: “There are no witches, witchcraft does not exist.”
The very next day, hundreds of villagers surrounded her house, to compel Rabha to sign a disclaimer that she was wrong to say what she did, and that, in fact, dainis do exist. But Rabha remained resolute, refusing to sign the document, and thus began a life devoted to fighting the malaise of witch-hunting in the state. “After that incident, they ostracised me and branded me a witch too, but instead, I used the time to work towards eradicating the practice,” she says. Since Rabha was already an active member of her village’s local Mahila Samiti (women’s self-help group) fighting social evils like alcoholism and domestic violence, her new avatar as a voice against witch-hunting came to her all too naturally.
“At one point, even I believed that there was a truth to all this, that witches do exist,” says Rabha, who has studied up till Class V. “But then my son, Dharmeshwar, who has a mental problem, fell ill in 1985, and a local quack said that he was possessed by a fairy, and would die in three days.” He did not. For Rabha, the incident was nothing short of an awakening. “I realised that innocent villagers were being duped,” she says.
In the years that followed, with the Samiti’s support, Rabha went from village to village whenever she heard there was a case of witch-hunting. “Raneshwari, Padumi, Anjali, Sanabala, Lakshmi…,” she reads out the names of those she and her team have rehabilitated over the years, a list of around a hundred.
In Assam, where witch-hunting is rampant, most causes of witch-hunt murders are prima facie based on superstitious beliefs that the “witch” — often a single woman, a widow, or, sometimes, a man, too — has magical powers to bring about death and disease in the community. But a deeper dive into most of the cases shows they are usually a means to settle personal scores — jealousy, property conflicts or familial strife — in the name of superstition.
While states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha and Rajasthan have already criminalised the practice, the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Protection and Prevention) Act, 2015 came into effect only in 2018. Rabha’s work and the organisation formed in 2011 under her name, Mission Birubala, played a key role in bringing about this law. “We began to look at underlying causes of why these incidents happen,” says Dr Natyabir Das, a Goalpara-based physician, who has long been associated with Rabha’s work. “Biru baideo (sister), being a villager, may be a little superstitious herself, but over the years, she has understood that the root cause of all this can be traced back to the lack of education and healthcare facilities, and the general lack of development,” he adds.
Today, in villages across Assam, Mission Birubala — which is a network of social activists, witch-hunt survivors, lawyers — holds awareness meetings, where Rabha, dressed in a patani (the traditional attire of the Rabha tribe, found across Assam’s Goalpara and Kamrup districts, and parts of Meghalaya, West Bengal and Bangladesh), hair tied back in a tight bun, delivers long rousing speeches about her life, to the roaring applause of the crowds. “She may be small and unassuming, but when she speaks, everyone just listens,” says Usha Rabha, a close aide. In 2005, Usha saw a photo of Rabha delivering a speech in the local paper. “Everything about the picture was so inspiring that I went seeking her,” says Usha, 55, “Now I am her shadow.”
Together, Usha says, they have walked — and sometimes run — long hours to meet women in remote villages through scorching sunshine and raging thunderstorms, climbing hills, navigating through cemeteries, swimming across rivulets. “The thing about her is that she never gets tired,” says Usha, “On several occasions, we have met people who have threatened to kill us, brandishing sticks and knives. But Biru baideo says, “Katile kaat, maarile maar, moi norokhu (kill me if you have to, I won’t stop).”
Over the years, Rabha has maintained a diary where she records the incidents of her life in case her memory fails her ahead of an interview. On Thursday, when we visited her, two interviews had already happened, and there is another in the queue. After they leave, Rabha says she will feed her chickens, fetch water, and if there is time, finish weaving a half-done pajar, a traditional Rabha scarf, she is working on. And if, in the midst of it, she gets a call from a woman in distress, she will leave it all, and run.