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PIL, Film Screening Part of Effort to Counter "Witch Hunting" in Assam

 

UTPAL BORPUJARI | New Delhi, December 27, 2013 16:34
Tags : Gauhati High Court | PIL | Assam | Birubala Rabha | Rajib Kalita | Hindu goddesses Lakshmi | Parvati | Durga |
 

New Delhi & Guwahati, Dec 22: A writ petition in Gauhati High Court against “witch hunting” and a district administration’s decision to screen an Assamese feature film on the subject in remote villages to create mass awareness have brought back the focus on the despicable practice that is continuing unabated in many parts of Assam.

Several recent incident of so-called “witch hunting”, including one in river island Majuli where scores of people, including children, were made to undergo a ‘purification’ process after being accused of practicing witchcraft, while several members of a family were hacked to death in a village in central Assam after being accused of being ‘witches’.
Now, all eyes are on the PIL, on the basis of which the Gauhati High Court has issued a notice to the state government, asking it to state by January 24 about what action it has taken to bring forth an anti witch hunting legislation a la Jharkhand.

While witch hunting incidents are reported from many parts of the country, in Assam it has become an endemic problem in recent years, especially among several ethnic communities. This, despite efforts by both the state governments and activists like Birubala Rabha to create awareness against the problem.

According to the PIL filed by one Rajib Kalita, during the 2002-12 decade, at least 132 people have been killed on the suspicion of practicing ‘witch craft’ while during 2013 around 14 ‘witch hunting’ cases have been registered across the state. Most of the killings have happened among tribal and tea garden communities, and most those killed were women, the petition has pointed out.

Recently, police in Majuli arrested three women after they claimed to be ‘incarnations’ of Hindu goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati and Durga and ordered physical punishment on six persons for being 'witches' and ordering ‘purification’ of several others.

The three, named Mridusmita Payeng, Janmoni Payeng and Munmi Payeng Pamegam, were arrested on the basis of an FIR by one Binod Payeng of Botiamari village alleging that he had been assaulted by villagers after the three declared him a ‘witch’. Binod Payeng was one of the six who were assaulted, and he was admitted to the Jorhat Medical College Hospital with grievous injuries.

In another incident recently again in Majuli, a youth and a woman accused 35 people of being ‘witches’ at Shikarigaon village, following which all of them were kept confined in the village for 22 days and subjected to a public humiliation and were made to undergo ‘purification’ ceremony.

On the other hand, the bodies of three members of a family, including a woman, were recovered from a pit in Ranglur Pukhuribasti village of Nagaon district in central Assam. Police said the three had been killed by a group of villagers for being ‘witches’.

Meanwhile, the Jorhat district administration has decided to screen award-winning Assamese feature film “Jangfai Jonak” directed by Sanjib Sabhapandit in villaged of river island Majuli to create awareness against the scourge of ‘witch hunting’.

The film has two parallel and connected stories, one of them being how a young woman is declared a witch by an unscrupulous priest at the behest of a bad character who fails to sexually exploit her and takes revenge by getting her declared a ‘witch’. The film was part of the Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) a few years ago.

Another recent feature film, “Adhyay” by award-winning filmmaker Arup Manna, too has a climax connected to the problem, indicating that the subject has been exercising the minds of creative people of late.

Meanwhile, the Assam State Commission for Women (ASCW) recently carried out a survey and a sensitization drive in two villages in Kamrup district and plans to extend the programme to other parts of Assam too.

According to ASCW member secretary Monideepa Borkakaty, the two villages, Sila Senduri Gopa near Sangsari in Kamrup (rural) district and Amchang Jorabat on the outskirts of Guwahati, where the survey and the sensitization programme was carried out, had seen ‘witch hunting’ incidents.

While two persons were killed at Sila Senduri Gopa on the suspicion of being ‘witches’, a woman was rescued after being accused of being a ‘witch’ at Amchang Jorabat, Borkakaty says, adding that labelling women as a ‘witch’ is usually connected to plans to grab their land or settle scores after refusing to succumb to attempts of sexual exploitation.
In another effort, the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) has got several state government agencies to join hands with the aim of preparing a comprehensive plan to to eliminate the problem. Among the departments that have joined the effort are the Social Welfare Department, the Health & Family Welfare Department, Assam Police and various district authorities.

But this is not an Assam-centric problem alone, if one goes by statistics. According to a field study carried out by the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS), during 2010-12, 51 incidents took place in Chhattisgarh, 26 in Bihar and nine in Jharkhand. ‘Witch hunting’ incidents have been reported also from Odisha and Maharashtra.

"The author's views are personal and do not represent the views of the organisation."

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017