Rise Of The Oc­cult

Faith be­comes an al­ibi for set­tling old scores in the vil­lages of As­sam where black magic and witch-hunts have taken a toll of ten lives this year

India Today - - INSIDE - By Kaushik Deka

Faith be­comes an al­ibi for set­tling old scores in the vil­lages of As­sam where black magic and witch-hunts have taken a toll of ten lives this year.

Witch-hunts, oc­cult prac­tices and an age-old tra­di­tion of an­i­mal sac­ri­fice. As­sam’s so­cial land­scape con­tin­ues to be locked in an un­easy co­ex­is­tence be­tween the modern and the bar­baric. Over 10 peo­ple have been killed in witch-hunts this year. Black magic prac­ti­tion­ers, called bej or ojha, still hold sway in wide swathes of trib­al­dom­i­nated ar­eas in the state. And faith of­ten be­comes a fig leaf to vic­timise op­po­nents and set­tle per­sonal scores.

On Oc­to­ber 8, in Jaraig­uri in Kokra­jhar district, Bi­gi­ram Narzary, 60, and his wife Ur­bushi Narzary, 55, were stoned to death by peo­ple who al­leged the cou­ple was re­spon­si­ble for a num­ber of deaths in the vil­lage in the past few months. On Oc­to­ber 9, a seven-year-old child was re­port­edly sac­ri­ficed in­side the camp of the 121 Bor­der Se­cu­rity Force ( BSF) Bat­tal­ion at Pa­hari­na­gar in West Garo Hills district, Megha­laya. The body was mu­ti­lated, the stom­ach cut into pieces and in­cense sticks forced into the fore­head. Po­lice said two BSF jawans and a tantrik from Mankachar, As­sam, were in­volved.

Most witch-hunts re­ported this year were from Kokra­jhar, Udal­guri and Sonit­pur districts. The prac­tice is also preva­lent in Kam­rup (ru­ral), Goal­para, Chi­rang, Baska, Lakhim­pur and Karbi An­g­long districts. The districts are marked by ram­pant il­lit­er­acy, poor ac­ces­si­bil­ity and a se­vere lack of ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing in health care, ed­u­ca­tion, san­i­ta­tion, and potable water. In­evitably, lo­cals fall back on ojhas and bejs to heal and, of­ten, bring the dead back to life.

On Oc­to­ber 9, Akkas Ali from Juria in Na­gaon district was de­clared dead by doc­tors of snake bite. His fam­ily in- vited sev­eral ojhas who claimed they could re­vive him. In a sim­i­lar case in Guwa­hati on Septem­ber 20, ojhas at­tempted over three days to re­vive a 45year-old wo­man, Sar­ala Devi, who died of snake bite. Her body was fi­nally placed in a raft and set afloat on the Brahma­pu­tra. “Some­day, some ojha might find the body and bring her back to life,” says a rel­a­tive.

Brand­ing some­one a witch is of­ten an ex­cuse to set­tle scores, or gain at an­other’s ex­pense. “Some al­leged witch-killings are noth­ing but the hand­i­work of the land mafia,” says a po­lice of­fi­cer in Sonit­pur district.

On June 22, po­lice in Sonit­pur found four bod­ies dumped in a ditch in Mon­abarie Tea Es­tate, Asia’s largest. The bod­ies of Bi­nanda Gaur, 46, his wife Karishma Gaur, 36, daugh­ter Naina, 15, and a neigh­bour Man­glu Mour, 14, bore mul­ti­ple in­jury marks and the faces were burned with acid. Karishma and Naina had been de­clared witches by the plan­ta­tion work­ers. Tiku Orang, one of those ar­rested, ad­mit­ted they were in­sti­gated by a man named Su­rat Modi to ac­cuse Bi­nanda and his fam­ily mem­bers of prac­tis­ing witch­craft, caus­ing plan­ta­tion work­ers to fall sick. But Bi­nanda’s wife and daugh­ter were the real tar­gets. Both were raped be­fore be­ing killed.

Of­fi­cial re­ports say from 2001 to date, 61 peo­ple have been vic­tims of witch-hunts, in­clud­ing 39 Bo­dos and 22 Adi­va­sis. Al­to­gether 86 cases have been reg­is­tered and chargesheets filed in 54 cases. But there has not been a sin­gle con­vic­tion yet. Those con­duct­ing witch-hunts of­ten get away be­cause there are no wit­nesses or it’s dif­fi­cult to pin the blame since a group of peo­ple are act­ing in uni­son.

A rise in an­i­mal sac­ri­fices is an­other facet of su­per­sti­tious prac­tices in the state. There are over 100 tem­ples in As­sam where the prac­tice is preva­lent, in­clud­ing the Ka­makhya tem­ple in Guwa­hati. Numbers tell the story. At Bil­weswar tem­ple in Nal­bari district, 20 buf­faloes were sac­ri­ficed in 2010, but 32 have al­ready been slaugh­tered this year. In Ugratara tem­ple in Guwa­hati, the num­ber in­creased from three to 13 over the cor­re­spond­ing pe­riod. Sources say 500 goats, 200 ducks and pi­geons were sac­ri­ficed at Devi Doul in Si­vasagar dur­ing Ash­tami Puja this year. “Hon­estly speak­ing, it’s im­pos­si­ble to stop this prac­tice. All we can try is to re­duce the numbers,” says Bib­hab Taluk­dar, head of Aaranyak, a Guwa­hati-based NGO.

Sev­eral pres­sure groups and NGOS are com­bat­ing witch-hunts to lit­tle ef­fect. In June this year, the All Bodo Stu­dents Union launched an aware­ness cam­paign in Kokra­jhar. “Such cam­paigns will never be ef­fec­tive if the root causes of the men­ace—lack of ed­u­ca­tion and health care—are not taken care of,” says In­dra­nee Dutta, di­rec­tor, Omeo Ku­mar Das In­sti­tute of So­cial Change and De­vel­op­ment.

In 2001, Kula Saikia, the then DIG (Western Range) of As­sam Po­lice, ini­ti­ated a project called Pra­hari in Kokra­jhar to in­ten­sify the drive against witch-hunt­ing and run cam­paigns among the vil­lage chiefs and el­ders. The project has been vir­tu­ally grounded for the last two years. “It had worked won­ders in tack­ling the men­ace and must be re­vived,” says The­bla Ba­sumatary, a Kokra­jhar res­i­dent. “It’s not cor­rect to say that cases of witch­hunt­ing have risen. Due to Project Pra­hari and me­dia spot­light, cases are be­ing re­ported now,” says Saikia.

The As­sam State Women’s Com­mis­sion has ini­ti­ated the process to­wards a law to deal with witch­hunt­ing on the lines of those in states such as Bi­har, Jhark­hand and Ch­hat­tis­garh. A three-mem­ber com­mit­tee, that in­cludes Saikia, was con­sti­tuted to pre­pare a draft to be sub­mit­ted to the govern­ment. It has met twice so far.

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