Rituparna Goswami Pande
The wizards and witches of JK Rowling's Harry Potter had turned witchcraft into such an interesting activity. Travelling thousands of miles in a matter of seconds just by apparating or using a portkey, levitating above the ground using a spell, zooming off into the clouds on a broomstick and so on...wizardry had never felt so appealing before. And yes, after reading and listening to stories about the magicians of Mayong,I have been forever pining to visit that magical place of Assam, which is incidentally just an hour's drive from Guwahati. JK Rowling had just rekindled my urge for stepping into our incredible land of magic.
Witchcraft is not new to India, the land of snake charmers and mythical legends, our history mentions prevalence of numerous superstitious practices, including witchcraft. Indians have given many names to witches, some call themchurail, some term them daayanwhile in Assam they are termed Dainis....
But didn't thatbelong in our history books? At times I had come across certain news clippings in the newspapers or read an article somewhere about witch hunting in Assam but I never really believed something so primitive afflicted our State and society. They were a thing of the past for me.
The topic of witchcraft and witchhunting was somewhere in the periphery of my life, which I never really acknowledged at any level of my understanding until a casual conversation with our house help.
It was like a trip into the dark recesses of the human mind devoid of the lamp of knowledge. I was taken aback by the bizarre conversation that I had with her.I was lounging in the living room couch reading a book when sauntered in our house helpinterrupting my rendezvous with the characters of the book. She settled herself near me and went into what seemed like a soliloquy about her native village....But it was the word Daini or witch that made me all ears.....Daini! I repeated....Yes, my father was killed by a daini, she continued. I tried to make her see reason asking her if her father was ailing or had any medical issues. To which shestated that he was fit and fine except for a BP problem."There you go, he might have suffered a stroke", I added. To which she shook her head violently and added a more chilling detail...."His liver was devoured by the daini....!""What rubbish....how can anyone do that, did anyone see her doing it, was there blood all over, was he crying out in pain?" I countered.
"No, no...you don't know...they have dark powers which make them do such mysterious things...."
But how did you identify a daini?
Oh, it's very easy you know....those women who have little hair on their head....since they roam the woods at night the hair gets stuck in the branches of trees..."
"But how do they roam at night?" I prodded.
"Oh, you don't know, they leave their bodies behind and only the head moves around...many people in our village have witnessed such occurrences..."
"Any other identification mark for dainis that one should know about?" I probed further.
"Yes, dainisusually keep blinking their eyes at regular intervals..."
"They are also often childless, and sometimes devour their own children", she added....
I was curious now to know more about her village, Korchi, which is a few kms from Goalpara.
I changed my line of questioning and asked her whether people in her villages are educated or not."Yes, yes why not, unlike earlier days almost everyone goes to school, there are many doing their BAs too....but often girls opt to elope after failing the matric exams as they feel ashamed of appearing for the same exam twice...""And they start having children," I added...
To which she nodded her head...."But there is camarderie among the villagers, they look out for each other......There are many BejorOjhas or witch doctors who help villagers get rid of curses by the dainis..."
This conversation was an eye opener of sorts which threw light over the dark areas in our interior villages. Villagers out of ignorance, suspicion and envy often blame their misfortunes on their women terming them dainis. I googled to know more about it and read that in India more than 2,000 people were killed last year after being suspected to be practitioners of witchcraft, and Assam too is reeling under this evil practice.
And witch huntingis widespread in many villages of Assam. Villagers brand victims as witches on the behest of ojhas or bej who are witch doctors. These witch doctors con people into believing and branding certain women to be witches and accusing them of being the cause of all diseases, deaths, loss of crops in the village. The witch is then subjected to numerous forms of torture at the hands of the superstitious villagers. Often the practice of witch hunting is related to the prevalence of patriarchal rights over property.
The government of Assam has taken certain measures to curb this evil in our society by launching Project Prahari in 2001, under which qualified experts educate villagers about matters of health and hygiene, etc.
Mission Birubala is another such organisation fighting a crusade against witch hunters. The founder BirubalaRabha is a woman of substance. She was born in a remote village in Goalpara. Villagers had blamed her for the misfortunes in her family and had branded her as a practitioner of witchcraft but she showed strong determination and boldly withstood extreme mental tortures. She later went on to form a MahilaSamity by bringing together a few fellow village women and continued to express her views against witch hunting. She played an active role in the eradication of witch hunting which is truly inspirational.
We need more NGOs like Mission Birubala to contribute in their crusade against DainiHatya or witch hunting. I am now a fan of BirubalaRabha, the lady who hunts witch hunters.....perhaps oneday I will meet her...Meanwhile villagers should be enlightened and taught to fight against superstitions and be vigilant against quacks.I am trying to brain wash our househelp against this evil practice but these beliefs are so ingrained in their minds since childhood that it might take time to usher in any good sense...