Passing the buck

The evil of witch hunting in Assam has to be tackled on several fronts, but the basic requirement is to put in place a deterrent law. Branding someone a witch has to be first recognised as an offence, only thereafter can stringent punishment be spelt out for the perpetrator. Sadly, this is yet to materialize in Assam, despite the State Assembly passing the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill and forwarding it to the Union Home Ministry in December 2015 itself. The Central government is learnt to have reservations over some provisions of the proposed law, particularly the denial of anticipatory bail to accused persons. On this point, the Assam Assembly (during Congress rule) should be credited for having drafted a tougher law. Activists have long complained that in the 12 States where witch hunting is prevalent, a large number of perpetrators manage to secure bail, and there is little likelihood of their re-arrest. While States like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan too have criminalised witch hunting, Assam would have set the bar higher with a stricter law. As per the version passed by Assam Assembly in August 2015, every offence under the Act was made cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable. This meant that the police would have the authority to arrest the accused without a warrant and begin investigation with or without the court’s permission; the police would not have the authority to release the accused on bail vis-a-vis surety amount, so the accused must apply for bail before a magistrate or court; and there will be no provision to arrange a compromise between the accused and the victim so as to avoid a trial. Anyone identifying and calling a person a witch would invite jail term up to 7 years along with fine up to Rs 5 lakh; causing the victim to commit suicide would invite life imprisonment and fine up to Rs 5 lakh; while killing of the victim would call for applying Section 302 of IPC dealing with murder. It has to be appreciated that most States do not list witchcraft as a motive for committing murder, which means the number of witch killings is vastly under-reported year after year.

In this context, there was a debate in Assam Assembly then whether the proposed law should be more reformative — considering that witch hunting is supposed to result from superstitious beliefs in some backward communities. Another factor considered was the lack of reliable healthcare machinery in large parts of the State, which forces people in remote interior villages to consult the oja or bez. A significant number of witch killings have been attributed to such quacks, who identify someone to be practicing black magic and casting evil spells that cause disease. But the general feeling in the House reflected during the debate was that witch killing is a gross violation of human rights, with poor, illiterate and highly vulnerable women of marginalised sections bearing the brunt. This broad stand was welcomed by activists, who have been pointing out that in many cases of witch killings, the reason was less due to superstition and more of a cold-blooded, pre-meditated act — motivated by personal enmity, greed for land and property, beating down new power centres in villages, and misogyny or jealousy of assertive females. There have been instances of women being branded witches by their own family members, because they had dared to demand their share of ancestral property! The Assam government informed the Assembly during budget session this year that there have been 80 witch killing deaths in the State from 2006 till March 23, 2018. However, activist groups like Mission Birubala have been claiming that due to the absence of a law which properly recognises this evil, the actual number of witch killings could be 400 plus from 2007 to 2014. Clearly, this is a social malaise that must not be allowed to fester any longer in the State. If the present regime in Dispur is at all serious about encouraging a rational mindset and scientific temper among the populace while firmly ensuring rule of law, it should stop dragging its feet over bills like the one proposing to outlaw witch hunting. Such passing the buck between Delhi and Dispur only raises suspicions whether the claims about ‘governance’ is only political hot air.