Burning The Witches
By Priyanka Dass Saharia
05 July, 2014
Bihurama Ganju, a resident if Gurunjuli village along the Assam-Arunchal border was beaten to death on 3rd July by the villagers for allegedly practicing witchcraft. The villagers believed the practice to be the real cause behind the long spell of diseased faced by them, and though the 40 involved have been arrested by the police, this incident is simply one in a hundred similar alleged ‘witchcraft’ lynching that goes on in the area.
Women have always been the most vulnerable groups in a conflict space as the Northeast India, where the constant state of mild violence creates a favourable ground for the breakdown of the roles of democracy that entails development. Possibly the slackening of the pace of human development has a lot to do with the political repressive regime that the area is, breeding grounds for social resentment and a perpetual state of paranoia and hopelessness in its inhabitants. Sometimes a situation as such forwards into the precipitation of incidents as the aforementioned which are loaded with implosive anger acts due to the underlying ever alive scepticism towards one’s perception of life in general.
2013 had seen coverage of this problem (Tehelka, February 14th) which remains endemic to the social landscape of Assam’s rural spaces. Interestingly most of these incidents are located at border regions which might explain a greater correlation between cross border social problems which crystallises into a distressed and impaired health of an individual’s psyche to be a common denomination of fuelling an atmosphere of violence and mistrust where hostile acts as such breed.
Women have been ostracised, thrown out of villages and isolated by families in allegations of witchcraft and bringing ‘bad luck’ to the village. Though a few groups (Assam Mahila Samata Socety, Goalpara) have come forward to start a negotiated approach of talks and a deeper understanding into the complexities of the problem that the society faces which gives rise to such belief systems but attempts have been on a small scale and a non committed basis for lack of administrative engagement and public response from the afflicted areas themselves.
“People wouldn’t talk about anything. We asked everyone about the incidents and rarely would people even confirm that the killing took place. They were very uncooperative” said Suranjana, a social worker working in the case. “People had deep rooted faith in these quacks which was the main problem” she further aids with clear exasperation.
There have a handful of women from the villages who had decided to break free from the vicious cycle of violence and have come to aid these groups in the breakdown of these mechanisms which keep such practices alive. “A gaon burah couldn’t take a bold step against witch hunting, and that surprised me and destitute women are the usual targets. When I had raised my voice against it, the villagers went against me too. They harassed me, questioned me but I tried to stand my ground. Had I not been involved with the Mahila Samiti as a secretary they would have tortured me too. They were a little scared because of my position. They forced me to resign and when I refused they ostracised me as well. Quacks a very much a part of a tribal society’s belief system and unless one sees development through education these villagers wouldn’t want to even open their minds to discussions” Birubala Rabha, a 60 year old widow from Thakurbilla, Assam had stated in the article on Tehelka last year.
Many activists have slated the problem to be one of a regressive mentality embedded in old traditions, but the larger issue of development remains in the periphery of the discussion. These villages lack institutional support when it comes to education or health and these practices simply are an outpouring of the people in their quest for answers and solutions to the situations. Their ways of blaming other vulnerable and destitute sections of the community are acts stemming from repose faith but on a deeper level it is a desperate attempt at finding solutions and answers to the underlying problems of development that the region faces. Add to this, the ongoing state of anxiety and fear due to the cross border tensions, the situation could be dauntingly burdensome for an inhabitant of the region. Many people have known to face post traumatic stress disorder post any inter of intra ethnic conflict in the area. The counter –insurgency movements by security forces puts another blotch to the already problematic zone that these areas face in terms of socio-economic and psychological problems.
‘Ignorance’ and ‘lack of education’ are simplifications to a larger and complex problem that conflict poses to development in any area. Adding on to that note, the deeply divisive grounds of numerous ethnicities and the structures with embedded patriarchy fosters an atmosphere for women that doubly affirm the vulnerable positions that they are in, by virtue of their ethnic affiliations as well as their gender.
It is also worth noting how single women and widows have been the sole targets of these implosive hate actions which might throw some light on the grips of patriarchy superiority and how having a man to protect you is crucially instrumental for the dignity and identity of a woman. The Manipur Guns Survivors’ Network has been working with women of the region whose families have been affected by the gunned violence of the cross border conflicts and aiding in their capacity building activities as a means of rehabilitation. Similar is the problem here, where these widows are usually the wives of men caught up in the cease fire of gunned violence in the region and perhaps a necessary step would be look at the role of alternative communication strategies in mitigation of the problem which would focus on a mix of raising awareness and capacity building activities through women’s collectives designed specifically to provide a grass root support within the communities as Joya Chakraborty and Anjuman Borah, working on the case have recommended.
The Goverment records show that 66 women have been killed during 2005 to mid 2013 and many others have been publicly humiliated, ostracised and forcefully trapped into various horrific ‘purification processes’. The efforts at tackling at the problem have been dispersed and lack a complex understanding of the larger issue of conflicts and social psychology that is bred in a domain as such. Pankaj Sarma in his piece on the topic (The Telepgraph, 2013) has expressed his views on the need to consolidate the efforts in a joint forum for better outreach and mobilisation for funds poltical support.
The acts of killing with trishuls are horrific and infused with a strong aggressive thrust to the action which speaks volumes for the firm faith in these beliefs of the people and their deep seated resentment towards parties that they think as disrupting the mental and social peace of the village. This also points to the larger desperation at the pathetic living conditions with no healthcare, education and psychological relief from the perpetual stress due to the ongoing conflicts.
The Assam Commission for Women conducted a survey in 2013 where Borkakaty said that labelling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores or even punish her for turning down sexual advances by other men.
The social disempowerment of women, who become a fringe community, especially in conflict zones where already in the pre-existing state of chaos of a politically repressive regime, public facilities are attacked and there is a breakdown of civil liberties with human rights curtailed, is often marginalised in public discussions of conflict resolution and negotiations. The dehumanising tendencies of the majority towards these vulnerable sections becomes a fertile ground for further perpetuation of gender related crimes and violence against women in the garb of ‘superstitions’ and ignorance. A certain temperament has to be bred with an inclusive re-conceptualisation of development in conflict areas which, as a research topic has always had its limitations to broader focus on planning and ‘national security’ as opposed to ‘victim’ rehabilitation.
Priyanka Dass Saharia is a final year Sociology student in Delhi School of Economics
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