When President Ram Nath Kovind approved a bill dealing with superstitious activities in Assam, many were happy but for one person, it was a hard-earned reward.
As news of Kovind’s endorsement to the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015 came last month, an elderly tribal woman seemingly got the armour to fight against the practice of suspected witch-hunting.
The bill was already unanimously passed in the Assam Assembly in August 2015 and forwarded for final approval from the Union government by the end of that year. It clearly views suspected witch hunting as a “cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence”.
So it empowers the police to arrest the accused without a warrant and start investigation with or without the court’s permission. Moreover, the police have no authority to release the accused on bail and hence she/he must apply for bail before a magistrate or court.
There will also be no provision to make a compromised deal between two parties with an aim to avoid trial. In fact, if one identifies a person as a witch, it would invite a jail term of up to seven years along with a fine upto Rs 5,00,000.
If the instigation provokes the victim to commit suicide, that would invite life imprisonment along with fine up to Rs 5,00,000. Finally, if one gets involved in the killing of victim( s), then Section 302 of the IPC dealing with intentional murder, will come into force.
The President’s approval brought a new ray of hope for all the activists and NGO workers who were fighting the social menace. Prior to Assam, various other states namely Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan formulated laws to deal with the practice. Assam often makes the news with the physical assaults and even killing of people branded as witches.
The government in Dispur recently informed the State Assembly that Assam lost over 80 people because of suspected witch hunting since 2006. But activists believe the number of victims would be high as many cases are never reported.
Birubala Rabha, who has been tirelessly working to eradicate the social stigma of witch hunting, argued that the actual number of victims could be over 400 plus across Assam since 2006. The 65-year-old hailing from the Thakurvila locality under Goalpara district in western Assam, however, expressed happiness that the new law would help in identifying many more relevant cases.
The tribal widow with her army of lady volunteers under the umbrella of Mission Birubala continues travelling across the state and the adjacent villages in Meghalaya to educate the people about the superstition. Moreover, they have pledged to rescue the victims of suspected witch hunting, who later join the mission.
Locally, the witch is called daini. Once a person (mostly female) is identified as a daini, the community takes it as a responsibility to kill the individual with an aim to safeguard others from her ill effect.
So, the community has its own twisted logic to target the victim. Identification of a daini is primarily done by the village physician (known as Bej, Kabiraj or Oja), who provokes the villagers to take action against that individual. There is no way for victims to defend themselves in the process. So it solely depends on the village physician.
Normally, nobody can dare challenge the decision of the village physician but Birubala was perhaps the first woman to reject his order. She showed the guts to defy the quack, who falsely predicted in 1985 that her first son would die after some days.
According to him, Birubala’s son Dharmeswar was under the influence of a fairy. Birubala rejected his version and amazingly, Dharmeswar survived even after the village physician’s deadline.
But Dharmeswar was later diagnosed with mental illness. Soon, her husband Chandreswar Rabha fell ill with an incurable diseases and later died. However, her two other sons — Bishnuprabhat and Dayalu — and daughter Kumali remained healthy.
A section of villagers, who were not happy with Birubala’s defiance, started spreading rumours that she was practicing witch craft and hence her husband died and first baby turned mentally unstable.
Those were hard days for Birubala as many of her close relatives avoided her because of the social stigma. But she stood against all the odds and made up her mind to fight the evil practice.
Born in 1949 at Thakurvila near the Assam-Meghalaya border area, Birubala could not continue her school education as her father died young and by 15, she was married off. She became a mother within two years and used to look after the entire family.
She broke the barriers in a maledominated society and formed a group of around 15 women volunteers to teach scientific education to every child (including girls) so that they could grow up to eradicate the menace of superstition from society.
Initially, Birubala formed the Thakurvila Mahila Samity (women’s association) to raise public awareness against various social ills. Soon her area of operation expanded to greater Borjhara and in 2006, she got involved with the Assam Mahila Samata Society. By 2011, Mission Birubala surfaced where she started working as a prime functionary.
About the suspected witch hunting incidents, she has observed that mostly poor women, who are normally single, widowed, helpless or old, are targeted by villagers. On many occasions, it was found that the women were targeted with a view to grabbing their land and properties.
Braving social boycott, threats and myriad hostilities, Birubala succeeded in saving the lives of over 35 women, who were once branded as witches. She has been felicitated and awarded on numerous occasions. Gauhati University has already conferred an honorary doctorate for her crusade against the superstition.
She was also honoured with the “Real Hero” award in Mumbai from the Reliance group, Samajpran Sarbeswar Dutta memorial award by SI Foundation, Urmila Das award by Assam Academy, Joymoti award by Dibrugarh Ladies Club, Upendra Nath Brahma award and social entrepreneur award by the State government. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 by the North East Network.
The writer is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman.