India is progressing with leaps and bounds, the massive victory of Candrayaan-2 proclaimed the expeditious growth of science and technology; while the rapid progress in finding out alternatives for sustaining a greener, healthier and sustainable environment has turned over a new leaf in the pages of history. But, has science progressed to the extent of effacing away rooted norms and superstitious beliefs are proving to be detrimental for the progress of the society? Has science been able to filter the raw notions from people’s mind and uproot the barbarian culture still prevailing in recent times? On one hand, we have women scientists shaking the world with their path-breaking discoveries, solving the greatest mysteries of the universe and on the other hand, we find our newspapers flooded with news of women being raped and brutally murders in the name of witch-hunting.
According to some news sources, out of 1,700 women killed in Assam since 2006, 800 were due to witch-hunting. Another report states that between 2001 and 2017, 193 people – 114 women and 79 men – have been branded as witches and killed. Witch-hunting is a taboo in Assam and people easily fall prey to such acerbic falsities entertained by a group of selfish people. Every year, thousands of students get admission into science dreams soon after the declaration of the board results; thousands of them come out as doctors and engineers. We have lakhs of graduates across the state, but still Assam cries every year when a flood strikes the mainland; still, our state is marked as the epicenter of witch-hunting. Where does our education go when it comes to breaking cliche band stereotypes? We are so obsessed with earning patents for our research work that we often ignore the grassroots realities. The successful launch of Chandrayaan -2 is indeed a proud moment for every Indian, but in the same land, there is a doctor who committed the heinous act of human sacrifice with the belief that it would bring back the life of his dead wife. Isn’t it weird? How can I not question his MBBS degree?
If you take the muddy, potholed Agiya-Lakhipur road to Tikirkilla Block on the Assam-Meghalaya border, you are bound to come across Khasipara, which houses within its limits the only ‘witch village’ in India – Dainigaon (village of witches), where 75 ‘witches’ and their families live. Sumantra Mukherjee, a National media person wrote in one of her articles – “During one of my visits to a tea estate in Assam’s Bamunbari (Tingkhong), I came across the story of an old widow. She was a permanent worker in a tea estate. After losing her husband a couple of weeks ago, she received ₹3 lakh from the tea estate since her husband too had been a permanent worker there. One day, in front of her house, a person fainted. The person was taken to a quack who used sorcery to treat him. Days passed by. Another day, another person fainted in front of the same woman’s house. This time, when he was taken to the quack, he declared that the lady was a witch and was bringing bad omen into the village to destroy other’s lives. In order to cure this, the witch must be killed. The villagers took up their weapons, broke into her house, dragged her out and mercilessly beat her to death.”
The practice of witch-hunting is widespread in tribal communities. The Adivasis working in the tea estates of Assam are mostly Santhals, Mundas and Oraon (Kuruk) who were brought from far-off areas in Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand which are ruled by the customary laws, and where the village chief acts as the judiciary. In such places, any vulnerable woman involved in a case pertaining to personal vengeance, land dispute or even a minor conflict is more likely to be labeled as a witch. She becomes the victim of gruesome consequences which include stripping her in public, teeth, and nails being ripped off, or being burnt or beaten to death. Such instances clearly highlight how people are being easily manipulated towards such notions for one’s personal benefits. But the most tragic part is that people are falling prey easily; that is because of the fear to break free from the shackles, the fear to challenge superstitions, the lack of education. Getting a certificate won’t efface such happenings, in order to uproot such evils work must be done at the grass-root level. We can see many women coming around and raising their voice for women empowerment; but the often-ignored fact is that they are the ones who already have an established job, a fancy car and a good lifestyle. Holding seminars, talks and taking out rallies will surely help people understand the theme, the purpose, and the fact ; but real empowerment will come only when women from the darkest and remotest corners come in touch with education, when they learn to hold opinions, when they understand the myths behind menstruation, when they can protest back against witch-hunting on their own. This is where we are lacking behind. Our theories and hypothesis are grounded and appreciable enough, but we are lacking the practical approach, we are lacking to put into practice.
In some of the most progressive societies, even the educated fall into the trap of hearsay rumors. During the summer of 2007, rumors spread across Assam that there were witches who went to people’s houses during the noon asking for onions and then sucked people’s blood (quite similar to the 1990s urban legend from Karnataka named ‘Nale Ba‘). The same educated people went on to put religious signs and symbols in front of their houses to shoo away those witches. Could anyone in this big state really spot even a single ‘witch’ who drank blood under the scorching sun? I wonder.
Witch-hunting is not confined to Assam alone. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that 2,290 people — mostly women — were killed in India between 2001 and 2014 for alleged witchcraft, a superstition that feeds on itself, incestuous. However, paranoia and superstition are so pronounced in Assam that this April, a couple in Lakhimpur district’s Moinaguri village was attacked and half-buried in a sandpit on the suspicion of practicing witchcraft. The hapless husband-wife duo remained half-buried until the police arrived and helped them out.
There are many heart throbbing stories that would surely force us to question the increasing literacy rate of the state, question the present education system, moreover question humanity. Science has always been the backbone supporting human progress. It is an essence for us to learn to navigate science in a prosperous way for leading the society a step closer towards humanity. One can hope that the real scenarios easily get into our mind and we work open heatedly at our individual level for effacing such credulity from our society. Lastly, as the anti-witch hunt bill lies on the backburner and activists’ efforts prove to be fool’s errands, there is little hope that this evil – which has been destroying lives, often literally – can be eradicated anytime soon.
Ankita Boruah is a final year BSc Chemistry student at Cotton University, Assam.