Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Kill The ‘Daayni’: Witch Hunts, Death Haunt Assam Villages

Superstitions are increasingly being exploited to settle scores and arbitrarily persecute people.

Saloki Mardi tried to escape violence but it snared her in the end. On November 18, the 45-year-old was hacked to death by unidentified men in Assam’s Udalguri district, where she had taken refuge after being declared a “witch” in her native village of Goraimari in Bongaigaon district in October.

Debjani Bora too could not evade brutality. A national-level medal-winning javelin thrower, she was branded a “witch” in her village in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district in October after the death of four people there. She was then dragged to a prayer hall, tied in fishing nets, and assailed severely.

Violence enfolded in witch hunts is not uncommon in India. The National Crime Records Bureau says that more than 768 women were murdered for “practising witch craft” between 2008 and 2012. Nor is it new to Assam. In the decade from 2002 to 2012, 132 people, mostly women, were dubbed witches and killed in the North Eastern state that ranks the lowest in the gender development index.

But their spiralling numbers in the recent past illustrates the Assam administration’s continuing inability to uproot the practice and the causative superstitions. More than 100 cases of witch-hunt killings were registered in Assam from 2002 to 2012, but charge sheets were filed just in 60. Although 450 persons were arrested in these cases, none was convicted.

As 'goddesses' watched
Assam’s riverine island of Majuli has witnessed witch hunts for long. Some years ago, three members of an affluent family were killed “for being witches”. Over three weeks in October last year, 35 people were pronounced witches in Majuli, and 51 were put through “purification rituals”, many of them violent, as women dressed as Hindu deities watched.

The horror unfolded in the Sikarighat and Botiyamori villages in Majuli.

Biswajit Payeng remembers well the day when he was forced to admit he was a daayni (witch). The 39-year-old was bathing in the river near his home when a large crowd approached him. As he came out, they caught him and bound his hands so hard that it fractured his arm. A drink was pushed down his throat, leaving him semi-conscious. Then, from mid-morning to late afternoon, he was beaten, along with two other men and a woman. During the ceremony, 11 names of “witches” were read out.

The crowd told Biswajit Payeng to give up texts on witchcraft and asked him to sign a paper to confess his ability to attack anyone with a trident. While many people instigated the beatings, Biswajit Payeng remembers, women dressed as Laxmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Shiva and Krishna watched.

Defiance punished
Gunjo Payeng was the woman dressed as Krishna. Today she says she does not remember anything because she was pregnant at the time of the ceremony. “I only sing naam [hymns],” she said, holding a toddler in her arms in her bamboo home that sits on stilts.

In Laxmi’s clothes was 16-year-old Moni (name changed). That day last year, she says, she was abducted from the Shiva temple. “I don’t remember clearly, I was given fruits, raw food and coconut water,” said the young girl who had moved to Botiyamori after marriage. “I was told it was prasad, but I felt fuzzy. Somehow I found myself dressed like Laxmi. It was wrong to believe them blindly.”

Before the attack, Biswajit Payeng had heard of some people assembling in the evenings to discuss an “operation” to ward off evil spirit in Sikarighat. He had heard that someone had learnt the tricks from a “bez” – a quack said to have mystical powers – in Mayong in Morigaon district. As the chairperson of a local school’s managing committee, he protested about this. His defiance was punished.

Khagen Payeng was beaten up along with Biswajit Payeng that day. He too was asked to produce his texts of witchcraft. “I don’t know to read or write, I use my thumbprint to get ration” said Khagen Payeng. “How could I produce mantras for witchcraft? I don’t even own land to fall into a dispute with anyone. I earn my livelihood by selling vegetables from a small cart. Why was I attacked?”

Silent policemen
When she heard of the violence, Jamini Payeng, a well-regarded activist in Majuli, rushed to the spot. There, she found four badly bruised people tied to a tree and a few policemen standing silently in a corner. “Men shouting with sickles and axes, Biswajit tied to the tree, his screaming wife with her toddler in arms, and then the women dressed as gods – it was crazy,” said Jamini Payeng. The policemen had been told by the villagers to stay away from their “traditional rituals”.

After a long wait, the Collector arrived and ordered the four injured to be taken to hospital. Biswajit Payeng was transferred the next day to the civil hospital in Jorhat, across the Brahmaputra River.

Moni, Gunjo Payeng, Biswajit Payeng and Khagen Payeng, all accused Anita Sintey, who was dressed as Shiva, of masterminding the violence. Sintey, better known as Kamputi (“the fair one” in Mishing language), says she is being victimised. “In a dream, god told me to build a temple,” Sintey said. “After I constructed it outside my house, I dreamt that I must perform a jagyaa [chanting ritual].”

According to Sintey, two other women – the ones allegedly dressed as Laxmi and Saraswati – came to take part in the jagyaa on their own and got their husbands to bring fineries so that they could dress up as goddesses. The jagyaa was a lavish five-day affair with food and local alcohol.

“As the jagyaa went on, I don’t know how all the beatings started,” said Sintey. “Now people find it easy to accuse me because I had built the temple. I don’t remember calling anyone a daayni. But if I did, it must have been in my semi-conscious state during those rituals.”

Change in laws
After the administration intervened, Sintey and Moni were arrested along with two others. They were in prison for over a month. Soon after their release, Biswajit Payeng was offered cash to compromise. “I told them that they need not offer me money, but I want this conspiracy to be revealed,” he said.

His wife Anamika’s concerns are different: “His image is tarnished. He will always be referred to as that man who might have been a daayni.”

Laya Madduri, now a project officer for the District Rural Development Agency in Jorhat district, was the sub-divisional officer of the Majuli division when the witch hunt occurred. She says that without a specific clause in the Indian Penal Code to criminalise the branding of people as witches, such practices will continue. “We can take suo moto action, but under which clause?” Madduri said. “We were able to book some people only when an injured person in Sikarighat filed a police complaint.”

What makes it tougher to deal with a witch hunt is that the whole village goes under a spell, she said.

In 2011, the Assam State Women’s Commission had drafted a Bill to tackle witch hunts. Sheetal Sharma, programme associate with a woman’s rights group called North East Network, submitted a query to the commission under the Right to Information, seeking a copy of the Bill and information on its progress. In return, all she was told was that the draft Bill had been submitted to the chief minister and the Social Welfare Department.

Not surprisingly, most people in urban Assam shrug off news of witch hunts. “When educated people succumb to such beliefs, it becomes obvious that it is not superstition alone,” said Sharma. “The branding of people as witches has become a convenient way to settle scores.”
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