They were hunted for 'haunting'

Soothsayers word on witch is final

The entrance to Laogi Nazary’s house in Kasugaon Hatigarh in Assam. Bondita Acharya

It was a typical sultry evening in April. When Dujmal Narzary walked in, the family of Bifola Narzary extended a warm welcome and wanted to be a perfect host. As is the custom amongst some tribal communities, Bifola offered local liquor. As the guest was in a mood to down a couple of extra pegs in the hot weather, she asked her husband to get more for the guest. When Bifola’s husband went inside to get more liquor, Dujmal pulled out a knife and murdered her. Straight away, he walked to Kokrajhar police station and surrendered.

Dujmal had no remorse on his face but it gave an impression that he had achieved “something”. Dujmal believed that he has eliminated a witch by killing Bifola. According to Bifola’s husband and villagers, Dujmal’s wife has been suffering from an illness since long. He went to a local healer. As per the advice of the healer, he committed this heinous act.
There are many such incidents and at least 11 people have been killed in the tribal belts of Assam in the last few months. Details might vary but one point is common — the victims were killed because they had been branded  witches.

   How do they identify witches? One way is when a traditional astrologer/ojha/bej (local healer), reveals a person’s name which is mostly a woman. He/she is then considered as a witch or the witch harming the village. Another way is by covering the patient with a net. The person is then pricked with thorns or sharp instruments until it becomes unbearable and finally he or she reveals the name of a woman, who is then accused as the witch.

Available figures make the chill run down the spine of people. A total of eight deaths in the first four months of 2011. Six women were hacked to death as they were  branded witches in Kokrajhar district since April 15. Purni Basumatari, 57, and Modani Basumatari, 55, were beaten to death in Belguri Guwabari village on April 15, and Bifola Narzary, 53, was killed in Bosabeel villa ge the next day. On April 26, a couple-Laogi Narzary and Suresh Narzary were killed in Kasugaon Hatigarh of Sarabil area. Another woman was killed in the Samthaibari village on Sunday. On January 1, a couple Sarat and Bindo Hazowary, 65, and Tapashree Hazowary, 52, were killed in Habrubeel village.

Children not allowed

In Kasugaon Hatigarh, which is 40 km away from Kokrajhar, Laogi and Suresh Narzary made a decent living with whatever they had. They faced a lot of opposition from the villagers, as they had converted to Christianity some 30 years ago. On April 26, a group of 30-40 villagers came to their house with dao, knives and sharp bamboo spears at 9 pm and dragged the couple to the river side, where they killed them brutally and buried them.

They did not allow their children to go out of the house to inform others. They said that, in a Bodo village once the village headman and villagers take some decision about village matters, they cannot share the decision with others. If anyone breaches this rule, then they might lose their lives. The family had to keep quiet out of fear.

According to Jashada Brahma of Kokrajhar district, the incidents of  killing “witches” have been alarmingly increasing in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts of Bodoland, Assam.  Under Kasugaon police station near Gosaigaon, one man was brutally beaten up by the local people after he was suspected to be a witch. When some villagers took him to the police station, the officials said that this case should not have been referred to them. They were told that these matters should be tackled at the village-level only!

Sabanti Pegu, lower primary school teacher from Agamdolung village in Jonai sub-division under the Dhemaji district of Assam, has been working closely with the Mishing community and documenting cases killing of “witches”. She has records of at least 11 deaths. According to her records, in September 2010, in Chungrang village, Budheswar Sungkran was killed by the community members with sticks after he was declared a “witch” by the local soothsayer or bej.

Another incident occurred before September 2010, where one man was put into the gunny bag and thrown into the river in Dhakuakhana panchayat of North Lakhimpur district in Assam.

Kobiram Chungran from Tongani Gaon in Dhemaji District and Babu Pegu from Gohpur in North Lakhimpur district and a few others were killed by local people as they were declared witches by local soothsayers. In the Sadiya sub-division of Tinsukia district, one Tongke Sungkran, who was declared a witch, committed suicide after being tortured and humiliated by the community.

These killings have also taken place in the Mishing villages in the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, where a devi or a local goddess utters the name of the man and then the entire village hunts him down and kills him. In September 2010, two women and one man were killed by the community after being branded witches. In November last year, one man named Patir was poisoned by the community after being declared a witch.

Growing alarmingly  

Among some of the communities in north east India, like Bodos and Mishings, killings of “witch” are growing alarmingly. Targeting of “witch” is also seen in Jharkhand, Orissa and some parts of West Bengal.

The district administration and activists have been doing their bit to curb this practice at the local level but it raises its ugly head in many parts of the country.  The judiciary, policy-makers and traditional institutions need to take note of these kinds of human rights violations and develop some law against the practice of witch-hunting.
The legal stricture, prohibitory measures and in some cases incentives for curbing this practice can inspire people to be proactive and device methodologies to save lives from the heinous crimes.

Bondita Acharya,  a local activist crusading against such killing believes that the practice is prevalent both among the poor and the affluent.

She feels that jealousy, poor health facilities, issues of land and property and to some extent illiteracy are the main causes for such heinous acts which turn neighbours into enemies. She categorically states that, “to eradicate witch hunting according to me, a political will is required.”

“A comprehensive rehabilitation package/policy for victims and their families and specific law to ban witch hunting through an adequate state policy is a must,” says Gita Rani Bhattacharya, State Programme Director, Assam Mahila Samata Society.

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