Struggling to pull its weight among Indian states, Assam has quite a few handicaps which set it back in tiol perception. Apart from its perennial flood and erosion problems, the curse of militancy and chronic underdevelopment, horrific incidents like witch-hunting mar the State’s image badly, as the occasiol starvation deaths used to do for Odisha not long back. The State government has assured the Gauhati High Court of ecting a tough law against this practice in the coming monsoon session of the Assembly. But social activist groups fear that if concerned State departments do not give critical inputs in time, it may not be possible to send the draft of the anti-witch hunting bill to the Assembly before August 1. That may pour cold water on hopes of the proposed law seeing the light of day in this session as well. Hearing a PIL filed in 2013 demanding a stringent anti-superstition law, the High Court has already expressed its displeasure at Dispur dragging its feet over the matter. The State Home Commissioner and Secretary had to persolly appear before the court to present the draft law. But with the ruling Congress beginning to make electoral calculations for 2016, will it have the stomach to table a law against a social evil endemic in around 17 districts?
There are further misgivings that the proposed ‘Prevention of and Protection from Witch Hunting Bill, 2015, Assam’ is a hastily drafted legislation seeking to merely crimilise the practice and award stiffer pelties. It proposes witch-hunting to be made a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence, with no provision for anticipatory bail. Death due to witch-hunting is to be prosecuted as murder under Section 302 of the IPC. In case the victim commits suicide, the offenders are sought to be imprisoned for life. For groups of people indulging in witch-hunting, much higher fines and longer jail terms are proposed. Such offences will be tried by a special court while refusal to register FIRs, tampering with evidence or neglect of investigation by public officials will invite strict action. But will all this be enough to root out witch-hunting? Let us but recall the latest such outrage which visited Bhimajuli village in Sonitpur district a few days back. A 63-year old woman was declared a witch by some other village women, dragged away from her husband when her five sons were not at home, taken to the riverside by a crowd, then tortured and beheaded. When some offenders were later arrested, more than a hundred women besieged Biswath Chariali police station, demanding their release. Some of these women openly told reporters that they “all killed ‘the witch’ because she was going around casting evil spells, as a result of which iron ils, goatskin and even birds were found in victims’ stomachs”!
It is obvious that such entrenched superstitious beliefs holding sway over entire villages and broad swathes of tribal areas cannot be combated as mere crimil activities. If an entire village, in some remote, iccessible area where the police takes days to reach, remains mum to questioning or destroys evidence or collectively claims responsibility — what is to be done? How can such large-scale, social acts be dealt with, in the backdrop of extreme backwardness and lack of education in the affected areas? How will our lawmakers account for such mindsets in which black magic and occult forces are tangible, everyday realities? If witch hunting is to be elimited, it will need a long-term view that addresses the larger issues. Critical to this view should be the truthful assessment of health services in areas where witch-hunting is rampant. Social activists have pointed out that lack of health workers, basic medicines and awareness about treatment in rural areas, lays the field open to be exploited by all sorts of quacks and ‘medicine men’. How to separate superstitious beliefs from cruelty to the mentally ill or from crimil motives to settle persol scores, grab properties of vulnerable people etc — is important in the overall battle against witch-hunting. It is sad that despite backing Birubala Rabha’s almost solo mission against witch-hunting, the Assam government has not thought it fit to follow up with a comprehensive action plan to root out the mece. Since the country does not have a tiol-level law against witch-hunting, states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra have ected their own special laws to deal with it. It is high time Assam follows suit, having lost more than 180 lives to this social evil in the last 14 years.