Close to the Assam-Meghalaya border lies the district of Goalpara in Assam, about 170 km from the state capital Guwahati. Khasipara is a revenue village in Goalpara. After crossing the village, once you start walking towards the forest area, you will come across a hamlet, where about 70-75 people live. This ‘village’ has no official status and its name can’t be found in any government records. This hamlet is known as Dainigaon (witch village)—a village that provides shelter to witch hunt victims.
Sironi Rabha, 65, is one of the residents of this ‘village’. She was 20 when she was branded a witch and chased away from Konapara village, which is in the West Garo Hills district in neighbouring Meghalaya. She has been living in this hamlet for years along with over 15 families, who were banished from different villages in the Garo Hills district in Meghalaya and Goalpara in Assam. “We have made this hamlet our home. Children living here go to the village schools, but we do have access to power or water supply,” she says.
Those living in neighbouring villages don’t mind having them around. “These people have been living here for the past 50-60 years. We don’t talk to them much, but we have nothing against them. Many of them earn a living by selling vegetables at the tiniali (crossroads),” says Upendra Rabha, a resident of Belguri, a village near Kashipara.
According to the Assam government data, between 2011 and 2019, 107 people were killed across the state in witch-hunting incidents. The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act was passed in 2018. It is considered to be a stringent law. However, the conviction rates are low and cases of witch hunting are still being reported in many villages. Last year, Anjali Murmu, a 45-year-old Adivasi woman, was killed after she was branded a witch and her body was found hanging from a tree in Mohanpur village in Kokrajhar.
It’s mostly the women who are branded witches. Over the years, hundreds of women have been ostracised from their villages, attacked, sexually assaulted, beaten up or killed in the name of witch hunting. Many cases of men being branded witches have also been reported.
Some of these men and women have made Dainigaon their home.
Women are Easy Targets
A few days before Sironi Rabha was banished from the village many years back, her mother Proma Rabha was also thrown out of the village for practising witchcraft. “The villagers forced her to cross the Ajagar River, which is close to the Assam border. She somehow reached here and started living in the jungle. When my husband and I were thrown out, we came looking for her and were surprised to find her,” says Rabha.
Rabha was thrown out of the village after her mother allegedly cast a spell on her neighbour and made her sick. Another resident Limai Rabha (name changed), a bej (traditional healer), was banished from her village in Lakhipur when three people fell sick after taking her medicine.
When a person is suspected of casting an evil eye on another person, family or an entire village and if that leads to illness, death, floods, droughts and other disasters, a witch is born. The suspects are usually women, especially those with land, power or relative autonomy.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures for 2021, Assam has the highest rate of crime against women in India. Chandra Mohan Patowary, presently the Cabinet Minister for Environment & Forests, Act East Policy Affairs and Welfare of Minorities Department, Government of Assam, informed the state Assembly in 2019 that witch hunting incidents were reported in at least 21 districts of the state. Most cases were reported from the Bodoland Territorial Region including Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang districts.
While majority of the victims of witch hunting are women, the victim in the first reported case of witch hunting in Assam was a male. In 1848, when the British were busy occupying tribal land for tea plantation, it charged a tribal chief of the Singpho community with killing another man of the same community on suspicion of witchcraft. Following this, in 1850, a circular was issued against the Singpho community, outlawing all forms of witchcraft and witch hunting.
Creating Awareness is the Key
A historical perspective on witch hunting reveals the practice is mostly prevalent among Bodos, Rabhas, Mishings and tea-tribe Adivasis.
“There is a deeply rooted traditional belief in witchcraft and witch hunting practices among the Bodos. In reality, the witch hunter wishes to punish the victim for a perceived transgression, such as refusing sexual advances, enmity, property dispute or challenging an authority figure. But by taking the advantage of the traditional and strong belief in witchcraft, the hunters brand someone as a witch and hand her over to the villagers. They spread constructed evidence and narratives,” writes Dr Dina Swargiari in her paper ‘Witchcraft, Totemism, Religion and the Question of Gender amongst the Bodo Community of Assam’.
Guwahati-based Dr Dibyajyoti Saikia, a human rights and anti-witch hunting activist, says: “Earlier, the primary motive was to dislodge someone from his or her property by branding them as a witch. These days it is more of jealousy. For example, if a woman is economically empowered, self-reliant or her children are bright in their studies, people get jealous and try to banish her a witch. There are many cases where a man approaches a woman for sexual favors, but if she rejects him, he tries to brand her as a witch.”
He adds: “The cases have come down after the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2015 has come into play. Around 25-30 cases were registered every year until a few years ago but in 2022, only four-five cases were registered. As per the provisions of the Act, witch hunting is a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offense, which can lead to up to 10 years life imprisonment. What makes the Act more stringent compared to similar Acts in other states is that there is no provision of anticipatory bail when a person is arrested. The Act also has provisions for the rehabilitation of victims.”
As per the Assam Crime Investigation Department data, in 2019, 53 people were arrested in seven cases of witch hunting under the Act. In 2020, the number went up—83 people were arrested in connection with 23 cases registered that year.
In Goalpara, Mission Birubala, a non-profit organisation, has been working tirelessly to curb the menace. Led by Padma Shri Birubala Rabha, 72—a crusader of the anti-witch hunting campaign in Assam and a victim herself—the team has taken up over 200 cases of witch hunting in the state since 2012. Apart from creating awareness and resolving disputes related to witch craft, it has been working with the survivors.
Dr Natyabir Das, the coordinator of the Mission, says: “The cases are going down because of awareness generation. The anti-witch hunting law has not been implemented properly. We have the strongest Act. When we come across a witch hunting case, we try and solve it at the village level. In some cases, we involve the police. The key issue is rehabilitation. If we don’t help the victims rehabilitate, they continue to face social exclusion all their lives,” Das adds.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Invisible ‘Village’")