WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
At long last, we are about to have a law in Assam that seeks to put an end to the kind of witch-hunting that has gone on in the State for well over a decade now. Over 130 people have died as a result of attacks on so-called witches in at least 17 of the districts of Assam since 2002. This is not to suggest that Assam is the only State in the country where women are killed by a group of people within the community merely because they believe that these women are witches and bring bad luck to the entire community and must therefore be elimited. And since it is quite unlikely that the government will do any such thing, the people of the locality take it upon themselves to elimite such women collectively and refuse to identify the killers. Unfortutely, such acts of ‘removing’ witches and women who are deemed to bring bad luck to any community are based solely on superstition and have nothing to do with either any empirical evidence or ratiol behaviour.
One of the problems of our society is that quite often superstition is deemed to be a facet of religion that appeals readily to most people in a society that has neglected the important task of differentiating between religion and superstition. As a consequence, we have the kind of education that does nothing to reject superstition or to point out that what we regard as religion is quite often nothing more than superstitious ritual. This is well exemplified by the fact that even well educated people insist on the priest putting vermilion spots on their computers and other electronic and mechanical appliances on the day of Vishwakarma Puja. What is totally missing from our attitude to science and technology is a scientific temper and a ratiol approach because such things are not inculcated in our schools.
The entire attitude to witches and “women with the evil eye” stem from attitudes promoted in male-domited societies where it is easy and convenient to put the blame on what goes wrong in society on women who are seen as witches either because they are different or because they do not conform to some of the superstitions rites and customs that are believed to sustain our society. The general attitude of suspecting some women to be responsible for all the ills that assail a community have their roots in some form of misogyny that has afflicted even some of the most civilized male-domited societies in the world. How else does one explain away the denial of voting rights to women, even in some of the most advanced European countries, right up to the beginning or middle of the 20th century? The trend of unfairness to women and denial of their fundamental rights has been a very prominent characteristic of some of the most advanced societies of the world. Women have been expected to do most of the monotonous and irksome household work year after year. They have much longer working hours than men within the household. And anything that the man of the house is unwilling to do is generally pushed on to the woman. The desirable changes in such a dispensation have come about only in the later part of the 20th century in the developing countries of the world. The Scandivian countries were about the earliest to ensure empowerment of women, and women sometimes outnumber men in the top echelons of the administration in countries like Norway and Sweden. It is a form of misogyny that has prompted many undeveloped male-domited societies to identify ‘witches’ within their societies whenever they lack explations for why everything is not going well for the community and whenever misfortunes keep befalling several households within the community. Most often, the urge to put the blame for collective misfortunes on some woman identified as a witch is because people refuse to accept the fact that most misfortunes arise due to the failure of people to do things at the proper time. The acceptance of this general weakness calls for a great deal of honest soul-searching which most people are incapable of. We have never come across any instance of ‘wizard-hunting’ in any society when calamities multiply or many households are struck by so-called misfortunes. In such cases, the ‘evil eye’ is always supposed to be that of a woman and not a man.
At long last, at least some of our lawmakers have woken up to the realization that no society can be permitted to arbitrarily decide that some woman or the other in the community has the evil eye or that she is a witch and to take the collective responsibility of killing her without ever letting the authorities know which of the men in the community were actually responsible for the murder. As things are now, most such societies or communities that identify and kill witches honestly believe that they have not committed a crime or a sin in taking someone else’s life merely on the strength of superstitious beliefs. Our lawmakers have eventually woken up to what is happening after 130 women have been killed by community groups as witches in about 13 years without the government being able to do anything about such a gross miscarriage of tural justice. I am not entirely convinced that the decision of the Assam Assembly to legislate a draft witch-hunt Bill has arisen from awareness of what has been happening or due to a sense of shock and horror at such happenings among our lawmakers. I am convinced that most of our uneducated lawmakers are not really sure what their stand ought to be on such issues. Most of them are as superstitious as the majority of our population, and are perhaps inclined to support the liquidation of all ‘witches’. However, their elders in the Assembly must have told them how strange it would appear for lawmakers not to be opposing the killings of so-called witches. So, notwithstanding the shortcomings of education and ratiolity, they have had to keep up appearances and the pretence of being ratiol persons opposed to superstitions.
As I said earlier, Assam is not the only State that has had to bear the cross of witch-hunts. States like Maharashtra, Bihar and Odisha have also had to frame laws to deal with the evil of witch-hunting. What is significant, however, is that the draft Bill for laws against witch-hunting is likely to be about the most stringent in the case of Assam. Bihar was the earliest to ect the Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act in 1999. The law in Bihar stipulates a jail term of three to five years for accusing a woman of being a tonhi or dayan and causing physical harm. There is no mention of any fines. Odisha has the Prevention of Witch Hunting Act legislated in 2013. The pel provisions under the law are imprisonment for three years and a fine of Rs1,000 or both for witch hunting or its abetment or provocation. The Odisha Act also has a provision for a prison term of three to seven years and a fine of Rs10,000 for the second conviction. Maharashtra also came up with the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act in 2013. The Maharashtra law sets a jail term of six months to seven years and fine between Rs 5,000 and Rs 50,000. Assam’s Prevention of and Protection from Witch Hunting Bill, 2015 envisages imprisonment from three years to life for branding a person a witch and abetting suicide. It stipulates a jail term of three to seven years and a fine of Rs 50,000 for whoever, known as ojha or bej, claims to possess supertural magical powers, declares any person a “witch”, does any act of healing or performs any ritual of jhadphook, jhora phooka or any other superstitious practice with the intention of harming others. The Bill also stipulates a jail term up to three years and fine between Rs 10,000 and Rs 50,000 for holding anyone responsible for any misfortune, tural disasters, droughts, floods, crop loss, illness or deaths in the village. The Bill also stipulates an abetment charge for any public servant wilfully refusing to register a case, neglecting investigation or attempting to withhold facts and evidence.
Going by the provisions of the proposed Assam Bill against witch-hunting, it would appear to be the most stringent piece of legislation against witch-hunting and related offences that stoke kangaroo court activities and the collective elimition of women assumed to be witches or causing harm to people in the community because they are supposed to have the “evil eye”. While one is impressed by the strictness of the proposed anti witch-hunt Bill due to be ected this year, one cannot help wondering whether the law will be enforced in Assam without fear or favour and with due regard for swiftness so that no more lives are lost in the State merely because someone regards a woman as a witch and spreads a rumour to create animosity against her leading to eventual death. This apprehension is not unwarranted considering our experience of what happens to the most stringent of laws in Assam. They rarely get implemented. And we all know that a law is of no use whatsoever if it remains in the law books instead of being strictly and swiftly implemented.