(By Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee) - For the last two decades or so, Assam has been witnessing a sudden spurt in the number of persons, particularly women, being denounced as dain or daini (witch) and often hacked to death. But this is not entirely a recent phenomenon. Ostracisation and execution of people in the name of witchcraft were in vogue in the medieval period and the trend continued in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries too. While the majority of people in Assam more or less follow Hindu teachings, customs and traditions like most of their co-religionists do in other parts of the country, certain ethnic groups of the state even today practise trantric (occult) rituals to avert evil sprits. Witch-hunting, occult practices and traditional custom such as animal sacrifice in the name of god, had been persisting in the state, especially in the lower Assam districts, for several hundred years. Studies point out that it was once famous as the “Indian capital of black magic” and people used to come from distant places, including foreign nations, to muster the art of occult practices. It is imperative that the prevalence of such beliefs and practices has to be analysed in religio-historical and socio-economic perspectives.
Persecuting or hunting people after castigating them as black magic practitioners, is prevalent among certain tribal communities like Bodo, Rabha, Adivasi, Mising, Hajong and Karbi. These ethnic groups—overwhelmingly illiterate and economically backward, still staunchly believe in age-old myths, supernatural activities and refuse to discard irrational thinking and inhuman acts despite numerous awareness drives undertaken so far. It is a paradoxical situation where such practices, some of which are barbaric in nature, have coexisted with modernity. The Times of India has explained this aspect in its editorial in the following words: “Witchcraft is irrational, dangerous stuff. It has no place in civilised society. Sure, such practices have existed for centuries. Black magic or ritualistic traditions bordering on that have coexisted with rational belief system in India for ages. But such coexistence was not necessarily peaceful and even desirable. These practices promoted superstition and advocated irrational methods to deal with illness, personal and social”.
The menace of witch-hunting has reached an alarming proportion in the state. When the UN rappoteur had been visiting the state in March 2012 to submit his recommendation to the union government on human rights abuse in the North Eastern region, his attention was drawn to the growing number of killing of innocent people, especially women, in rural Assam, in the name of witch-hunting and other superstitions, he took note of it. The majority of witch-hunting incidents are reported from northern and western districts—Kokrajhar, Goalpara, Kamrup (rural and metro), Dhemaji, Sonitpur, Baksa, Chirang. Sporadic incidents also occur in south, central and upper Assam districts of Cachar, Naogaon, Karbi Anglong, Lakhimpur and Jorhat. The tribal-inhabited belts of these districts still lack proper infrastructure, health care, education and other facilities. Therefore it is no wonder that the tribal people having deep-rooted faith in traditional mores and customs, often rush to bejs or ojhas (traditional medicine practitioner) or trantrics (occult practitioner or witch doctors) for remedies of their ailments. They are readily available in rural areas and their writ run in tribal-dominated regions.