The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

"The Witch, No. 2", c.1892 lithograph by Joseph E. Baker.

Witch-Hunting: NGO and State

(By Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee) - While tortures and killings associated with witch-hunting have been occurring with disturbing regularity and are about to threaten tribal society’s peace and harmony, the government’s response to tackle the menace has remained lukewarm. The anti-superstition campaigners put the blame on state government’s health, education and social welfare ministries for not being proactive in eradicating inhuman and superstitious activities that are prevalent among certain tribal communities of Assam, despite having sufficient resources at their disposal. Barring a few periodic statements and knee jerk reactions following a bizarre incident, the present government never seems to be focused or serious on the issue at the policy or decision making level.

Several NGOs, student and women organisations and police have been relentlessly campaigning against the social menace without much success. The crux of the problem lies in tribal communities’ superstitious belief system. Biru Bala Rabha, a seasoned anti-superstition campaigner of the state says, “We have not seen a massive campaign yet from the government to erase the notion of witches from the minds of rural people. Immediate steps should be taken to disseminate scientific temperament among people so that witch-hunting can be eradicated from grassroots.” 

The maximum numbers of witch-hunting incidents are reported from districts that fall under Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). Hagrama Mohilary, President of Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), acknowledged the persistence of such practices in remote Bodo-inhabited areas where superstitious villagers resort to barbaric methods to get rid of illness. In his opinion, witch-hunting killings based on superstitions are a matter of shame in the civilised world. Both BPF and All Bodo Students Union have organised several rallies and awareness programmes to curb witch-hunting in different parts of BTC. But so far, these efforts have not created a major impact on the tribal mindset. Bipul Rabha, gaon burah (village headman) of a Rabha-dominated village in Goalpara district which occasionally witnesses witch-hunting incidents, also admits, “……It is very difficult to go astray from a parampara (tradition) for a tribal society, unless it sees development through education”.

Many women organisations have been playing a pioneering role in eradicating the brutal practice of witchcraft in vulnerable pockets of the state. The Assam State Commission for Women (ASCW) had undertaken a project, titled “Targeted Intervention and Prevention of Witch-Hunting in Affected Areas of Assam”. While addressing a sensitising programme for police officers on July 20, 2013, ASCW Chairperson Meera Baruah said, “The commission has taken up several steps to prevent witch-hunting in the society by visiting the affected places, holding awareness meetings.” The ASCW has so far conducted survey at two places—Sila Senduri Gopa near Sangsari in Kamrup (rural) district and Amchang Jorabat. The commission announced that more such surveys would be organised in the districts of Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri, Chirang, Sonitpur, Morigaon, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Cachar, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Kamrup (rural and metro) in phased manner. The project is designed to eradicate witch-hunting, raise the level of awareness mainly regarding health aspect, increase the rate of literacy and foster economic empowerment among the under privileged sections of the society with the help of different government schemes.