Superstitious beliefs and rumour-mongering were central to the barbaric lynching of two men in Assam recently, but the people want the state government to play a more decisive role in assessing and redressing the existing anomalies at the grassroots level of the society.
Following the incident of lynching in Karbi Anglong district last week, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had announced that the government would introduce a programme called “Sanskar” in all the development blocks and panchayats to deal with situations triggered by ignorance and superstitions.
Director General of Police (DGP) Kuladhar Saikia told PTI that as part of the programme, awareness campaigns will cover the entire state, including the remote corners, in a bid to create a scientific temperament.
“The primary aim will be to ensure that those still in the grip of such beliefs are made aware that such things do not exist and that they do not get swayed by certain vested interests,” he said.
Events such as street-plays, film screenings and discussions will be held to raise awareness, the DGP added.
Padma Shri awardee and former president of the Asam Sahitya Sabha Rong Bong Terong said superstitions about witches and child-lifters existed in both the hills and valleys of the state since time immemorial.
“Illiteracy, poverty, lack of proper infrastructure facilities, coupled with decades of violence, are the primary reasons for people still believing in such superstitions,” he added.
The government must take measures to ensure that those living in the remote areas were provided with basic amenities of living and that education was the top priority, Terong said.
The two victims of the lynching incident — Nilotpal Das (29) and Abhijeet Nath (30) — were suspected to be “hopadharas”, which loosely translates to child-lifters, but the word in Assamese has a mythical or superstitious connotation.
“Assamese folk literature is replete with ‘hopadharas’ (child-lifters) and ‘dainis’ (witches), but the fact that people still believe in them is absolutely unacceptable,” playwright-director and former principal of Cotton College Sitanath Lahkar said.
Lahkar, who has directed an Assamese film on witch-hunting, “Aei Matite”, said the whole idea of “hopadharas” was imaginary and a superstitious belief, which had often led to inhuman acts.
He called for a concerted fight against such beliefs, but doubted if the present government had the right “mindset” to deal with such issues as “they themselves were in the grip of deep superstitions and indulged in practices that defied logic and reasoning”.
Social activist, author and actress Akashitora Saikia also pointed out that currently the entire country was in the grip of superstitions and the need of the hour was to involve all sections of the society to eradicate such beliefs, which must be a continuous process.
“The Assam government has initiated the ‘Sanskar’ programme, but first of all, they must prepare a list of all the superstitions prevailing in the country, conduct field studies, involve people who have access to the masses and take all possible measures to eradicate such evil practices, which have led to such inhuman killings,” Saikia said.
Child rights activist Miguel Das Queah pointed out that the lynching incident reflected the state of the marginalised communities of Assam and how lack of education “enhances reliance on traditional harmful practices”.
He called for community-based interventions in the marginalised areas like the hill districts, slums, “chars” or riverine areas and conflict-ridden places, among others, and said, “Schools can play a vital role in creating a scientific temper and initiating a generational change.”
The Assam government had formulated the Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015 to deal with superstitions, but it is yet to be notified and is currently reported to be with the president for his approval.