In July 2015, when 63-year-old Poorni Orang of Sonitpur district’s No. 1 Bhimajuli village was paraded naked, beaten up and subsequently beheaded by a mob of 100 — many of whom were her own neighbours and distant relatives — the macabre incident made international headlines. The villagers had branded Orang a daini / witch, after a village deodhani (self-proclaimed goddess) had stated that Orang was practising ‘black magic’ that caused deaths and other kinds of misfortunes in the village.
The next day 16 people were arrested in connection with the murder. And the next month itself the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015, was tabled in the state Assembly. In June 2018, three years later, the Bill finally got President Ram Nath Kovind’s assent making witch-hunting a “cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable” offence under the law.
Witch-hunting in Assam is rampant — and while, in other parts of India, states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have already criminalised the practice, the Assam law is a necessary, albeit delayed, provision.
Till before 2001, the malaise of witch-hunting, despite being prevalent, was never recognised. It was in the mid-2000s that activists, social workers and NGOs began to take cognisance of the problem. Between 2001 and 2017, reports state that there have been 193 witch-hunting deaths (79 male and 114 female), 202 registered cases, and 931 arrests made.
Arguably the earliest concerted move to fight the practice was Project Prahari launched by police officer Kuladhar Saikia, the current DGP of Assam. Back in 2000, five people had been murdered in a single day after being labelled as ‘witches’ in Kokrajhar’s Thaigarguri village. Using that as a reference point, Saikia, who was posted there in 2001, launched Project Prahari (Prahari means sentinel in Assamese) as a model of community development that brought together various sections of the rural society to combat witch-hunting by focusing on alternative livelihood skills. Today, about a 100 tribal villages in Assam are under Project Prahari, which is currently also used as a case study by the Harvard Business Review.
DGP Saikia is of the opinion that the legislation needs to be backed by proper social efforts for it to really work. “Implementation of a legislation is definitely an important task for the police but one must remember that social practices like witch-hunting based on superstitious beliefs are to be countered socially,” he says. The state police, now along with members of the civil society, are working towards spreading awareness about the new law throughout rural Assam.
Most causes of witch-hunt murders are prima facie based on superstitious belief that the ‘witch’ has magical powers that lead to death and disease in the community. “However, a deeper dive in most cases reveal that they are usually a means to settle personal scores (jealousy/property conflicts/familial strife) in the name of superstition,” say Dr Natyabir Das of Mission Birubala, an organisation which has been in the forefront of Assam’s anti-witch-hunt campaign since 2011. The face of the Mission Birubala movement is Birubala Rabha, a tribal villager from Goalpara, who in 2005 singlehandedly started raising her voice against the practice after being branded a witch herself. For her efforts, Rabha was conferred an honorary Doctorate degree by Gauhati University in 2015.
Between August and September, Mission Birubala is holding a massive awareness drive in the districts most affected by witch hunting: Nagaon, Karbi Anglong and the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (Kokrajhar, Baksa, and Chirang specifically). “Incidentally, the most recent witch-hunting case comes from Chirang,” says Das, adding that between 2001 and 2017, Kokrajhar recorded the hightest number of witchhunting-related deaths — 61 (18 male and 43 female).
As part of the drives, which will be supported by the Assam police, there will be street plays, documentary screenings and distribution of leaflets and posters. “The posters will clearly spell out the provisions and punishments of the new law,” says Das, adding that the plays will be performed by Goalpara-based cultural group Mancha Lenka led by theatre activist Rayanti Rabha.
In Karbi Anglong, the drive has the support of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council as well as other student groups. “We are not focusing a lot on lectures and speeches,” says Das, “Theatre and films have more of a connect with the rural masses.” An important topic of discussion will be mob lynching as well as the problem of “fake news” proliferated by social media.
“We are confident that the law will go a long way in curbing this practice,” says Rabha. According to the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, culprits can face up to seven years and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh. “Our awareness camps will try to impress on the villagers how wrong this practice is. Most of the people directly involved in the crime are usually illiterate — the masterminds who plan it are the real perpetrators, and often they are educated. They are the ones who need to be put to task” says Dr Das, adding that “There’s a death every month, and many go unreported.”
Till date, the law views a witch-hunt killings as murder cases. It is in this context that the legislation becomes even more crucial. “A separate legislation facilitates creation of separate data on witch-hunting cases distinctively different from other IPC offences,” says Saikia, adding that, “Finally, people will now recognise it as a social menace that can be fought through the new legislation backed by social awareness.”