If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere. ― Groucho Marx
To the common man today, it would seem that Nehru’s vision of a modern India has finally been realized. There’s a cellphone in every villager’s pocket and to the rural children, experiencing a whole new world with the click of a mouse no longer seems a distant dream. Yet, the fact that a black cat continues to draw in a sharp breath, means that reason is yet to triumph over myth.
The elders in the village proclaimed me a witch and pronounced me guilty of the death of a few people, who actually died of alcoholism. I was beaten up and tortured to exorcise the ghost in me.
The voice of Debojani Borah comes from the countryside of Assam, a stronghold of superstitious beliefs. While the national media clamored to satiate India’s hunger for a juicy murder story with the likes of Sheena Bora case, the heinous practice of witch-hunting stealthily sucked innocent souls, away from the media glare.
1) Witch-hunting : Insight into the specifics
In Assamese, a witch is called ‘Daini’ and more often than not a woman/man gets branded as such and blamed for everything that goes wrong in the village. In areas where reason and medical facilities are in short supply, the terrified loved ones of an ailing human take recourse to the witch doctor (Ojha in local parlance). Once this ‘doctor’ determines witchcraft as the cause of the ailment and suffering, he/she sets in motion the wheels of vengeance. The process of identifying the ‘witch’ involves pricking and prodding the patient with pointy objects until he/she in a state of ‘delirium’ names someone in the village as the witch. What follows the capture of the innocent, unsuspecting target, are all gory details.
2) Scholarly opinions on the institution
An Assamese researcher Jahnabi Gogoi Nath, has documented some of the views of scholars who see the institution of witchcraft and witch hunting in the context of numerous societal conflicts.
Some interpret it as a struggle between the ‘primitive’ and ‘marginalised’ religions of tribals against the organized religions, others view it as a conflict between the rich and poor; forest and urban communities. There is also a group that believes witch hunting was initiated by men who wanted to take over from women the ancient systems of medicine and treatment.
3) When pain fails to break
Having through miracle survived the jaws of death, the survivors of Witch-hunting in Assam today realize that if they allow themselves to break, their community will one day annihilate itself. They realise that external sources can only provide the spark, and that they alone can nurture it into a flame to vanquish the darkness.
4) AMSS: To the rescue, when the law turned its back
The Assam Mahila Samata Society (AMSS) has been one of the key providers of the spark. Through extensive community outreach programmes, it has spread an understanding on how the practice has been used to settle old scores, consolidate patriarchal system, satiate greed for power and property, etc. Many of the survivors like Birubala Rabha, Jonali Rabha, etc; joined the society and transformed its operations from mere awareness creation to active elimination of vulnerabilities on which the practice continues to thrive.
The society’s work begins at the grassroots level- informal door-to-door visits and chats for a better understanding of the community and culminates with the creation of powerful women sanghas, confident of carrying the battle forward on their own. While every leap in women’s self-empowerment is laudable, an issue of concern is that- of the little span of attention that witch-hunting attracts, the focus is largely on women, although in the state, male victims have been steadily rising.
While it’s true that legislations cannot root out social evils, they still need to make meaningful interventions to fill the gaps.