By- Sujata Das
The history of witch hunting dates back to several hundred years. During the period of 14th to 17th century, persecution of witches had led to the torture and murder of thousands of innocent women and men, even children. Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was burned alive at the stake for heresy at the age of 19 on May 30, 1431. It was believed that she was called to save France from England by supernatural voices when she was just 16. Her victories were legendary, but eventually she was captured and executed. That was history, but the sad part is that such practices still prevail in the world, – in different names, customs and beliefs. Whether it is Joan of Arc from history chapters or Hermione from a Hollywood blockbuster series Harry Potter, people still secretly believe in such practices,- some call it Voodoo, some call it witchcraft and some calls it Black magic.
In Assam and north east, practicing witchcraft or black magic dates back hundreds of years too. Mayong in Morigaon district, now a major tourist hub, used to be known as the Indian capital of Black magic and even people from far off countries were claimed to have come to learn the dark art and spells in this place. Tales of human sacrifice and horror have been penned in contemporary literature as well as folk tales.
However witchcraft was not limited to Mayong in Assam; it was and unfortunately is, prevalent amidst several communities and tribes across the Brahmaputra valley. People who practice these dark acts are referred to as Bez or Ojaa, some of them even believed to keep domestic ghost-servants called Beera or Beera Bhoot. In fact a few years ago, suspicious activity carried out by Beera ghosts at the heart of city Guwahati made headlines in newspapers as well as TV channels!
The fact that witch-hunting or witch-burning has been making headlines of all local newspapers of Assam for quite some time, every now and then, is not only disturbing but also alarming. More than 500 people have been killed and 116 official cases of witch killing have been registered since 2001 in Assam. The sad part is, – not more than a few of these cases ever made any progress due to absence of witness.
One would question as to why and how such things could happen when science and technology are its peak, people are advanced in their thoughts and life style. The truth however is, back in Assam, people still cling to age old myths, superstitions and worst, some know well to take advantage of these blind beliefs.
A large number of Bez or Ojaa are often con-artists themselves who makes a living by providing medication to the villagers from several diseases. Rural Assam is a hotbed of several epidemics such as malaria, cholera, etc and due to the nature of developments that have taken place, anyone seriously ill has to be taken by handcart or bicycle through paddy fields, dirt roads and forests to the nearest hospital, often several miles away. As such, the villagers often approach to the nearby Bez or Ojaa, abundantly available in rural Assam. As understood, many of the patients could not be cured in spite of the tall claims and predictions of these Bez or Ojaa. As a result, emotions run high and the villagers often accuse the Bez or Ojaa to be responsible for the death of the patient, which in turn leads to sever punishments including death. Needless to say, even the practitioners of witchcraft in Assam have to remain in constant fear.
On the other hand, there are some cases reported where it is claimed by a section of people that the witch killings are acts by the Land Mafia. In such cases, some miscreants uses social superstitions to destroy and uproot families completely from the land they have their eye on, so that this piece of property can later be acquired at dirt cheap prices. For the common man, who would want to own a property where witches lived and practiced black magic once? Even the Police have often claimed that some alleged witch killings were nothing more than murders carried out by people with their eyes on land owned by the victims.
There is no disagreement on the fact that the Illiteracy and lack of proper health care facilities are behind the powers as well as plight of the Bez and Ojaa in rural Assam, especially the tribal-dominated areas. In addition to this, alcoholism also forms an important reason. Most of the locally or home brewed alcohol (rice beer) consumed in such areas contains a high alcohol content, running to even 40-70%. Due to regular consumption (often daily at evenings) of such highly intoxicating and unfiltered alcohol, the thought process of the individuals essentially go wary, overwhelmed with emotion and it does not take anyone much effort to convince such people that the Bez and Ojaa in their neighborhood is evil and that he/she needs to be killed.
Education and Medical care in the rural areas is a must to drive this mess out. But this is not enough. Civil societies, medical bodies, educational bodies, the police and local bodies (can be women’s forum, student’s organization, etc) have to work hand-in-hand to make the people educated and aware. The project Prahari, initiated by the Police department has to intensify their drive and invest in community policing and running campaigns among the village chiefs and elders.
Most importantly, the thought process of the educated ones has to change in the state. We find people all over the state who claims to have found powers of medicine and cure through dreams. Such people become overnight Godmen and most of the thousands of believers who throng their doors are often the most educated ones including high officials, businessmen, etc. Of course the efforts of some genuine good people who have helped and healed innumerable poor and needy through their herbal medicine or spiritualism cannot be dis-respected, nor can the issue of witchcraft be clubbed or mixed with religious believes. But there has to be a clear division between the two, something many at times people fail in.
Witch hunting is now one of the social stigmas of Assam. The land of black magic is now a land of bloodshed in the name of black magic, that too in the 21st century. It is high time that NGOs, Government bodies as well as local organizations come forwarded to make people aware of such inhuman acts and jump in action right away instead of holding symbolic protests and demands. One Birobala Rabha is not sufficient; we need hundreds more from amongst us to put this shame away and move forward.