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Breaking the spell

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
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A senior police officer in Assam is using a multi-pronged combat against the medieval practice of witch hunting

“Why did you join the villagers in killing your father?”

Barely into his teens, slain Rup Bodo's son fiddles with his fingers, taking time to respond to the question, his eyes fixed on the floor.

Some village elders accompanying him to the Deputy Inspector General's office, in Kokrajhar district of Assam, try to answer for him. DIG Kuladhar Saikia curtly stops them. “Let him answer.”

After a period of silence, tears well up in the boy's eyes. “My father was a very good man,” the boy says between sobs. Recalling this encounter with the boy and his grim story, Saikia says, “I felt I needed to do something beyond traditional policing.” Saikia is currently Additional Director General of Police.

Back in 2000, in just one bloody night, five villagers were killed in Thaigarguri village in Kokrajhar district. Why? Because people considered them witches and bad for Thaigarguri. Rup Bodo was one of those hunted down that night. Saikia was nowhere near Thaigarguri then. In fact, he was thousands of miles away, pursuing his Fullbright fellowship in Washington.

“On returning from my fellowship, I was posted in Kokrajhar. While flipping through the unsolved cases, I found this case of five deaths in one night and no one accused. I was intrigued. Local police suspected it to be a case of witch hunting. So I called a meeting of the village elders, and to my shock, found that it was actually so,” says the IPS officer, a known name in Assamese Literature with a number of books to his credit.

Witch hunting has been in practice for hundreds of years in Assam's tribal society, particularly in the northern and western parts. But there is no separate official record of such deaths, because there's no conviction. Reason: “Nobody comes out as a witness in such cases,” says Saikia.

That set Saikia thinking. He started Project Prahari in end- 2001 and began with Thaigarguri. “But in a veiled manner. I couldn't have taken on a practice continuing for generations. The community would have thought, I was questioning their tradition.” So he thought up a multi-pronged approach. “We began by forming a community management group in the village, told them it is to develop their area. Being a remote area, hardly any outsider visits them. We began to take experts to them to help them adopt modern methods of agriculture, help with building and repairing public facilities,” says Saikia. Women are usually the prime movers in tribal societies. “So we helped them too in augmenting their skills in weaving and bamboo craft.” Things began to roll and Saikia gradually wove into it group meetings to discuss witch hunting and its ills.

“There is tremendous community bond in these areas, otherwise how can they kill someone and keep quiet about it?” he says.

On noticing Project Prahari making a difference, former DGP Hare Krishna Deka adopted it as a state-wide project for Assam Police. Today, it is operational in villages across various districts affected by witch hunting. “But conviction is still minimal, cases are dealt like any other murder case,” says Saikia. But he is hopeful after a recent Gauhati High Court judgement that has granted the family of five victims monetary benefits. It has made the government responsible for maintaining the families of those killed on suspicion of sorcery.

Thanks to his drive, cases of witch hunting are now increasingly being reported in the local media. Saikia's next target is to get a separate legislation against witch hunting, like in Jharkhand. Last year, the State Commission for Women formed a committee including Saikia to draw out a draft bill against witch hunting. The draft is pending with the Government.

Unlike other States, in Assam, witch-hunting crimes are not against women to grab their property. Saikia says witch-hunting here is the direct fallout of poor health facilities in remote areas. “When they fall sick, there is no doctor in the vicinity, so they consult local vaids. If the patient dies, it's not uncommon to think that the vaid killed the patient. In tribal villages, there are many women vaids.” A few more deaths like this and the vaid is branded a witch. It's another thing that tribals in these parts generally die due to the latent malaria they carry. Saikia thinks his work is paying off. “Just yesterday, I got a call from an interior village in Goalpara district. Women there wanted police help to reinstall a girl named Bakuli Rabha in her house. Since somebody in her family was often falling sick, the vaid declared her to be the cause. The village labelled her a witch and drove her out.”

A short call to the local cops and the girl was back home. Yes, Saikia's campaign is making a difference.

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