Assam is not a safe place for women. Every second day for the past several years the media has been reporting stories of elderly women who are labelled “witches” being brutally killed. The latest incident (February 12, 2012) occurred in Tezpur in Sonitpur district where Lakshmi Gaur was murdered and buried. The day before, another 45-year-old tribal woman, a mother of 5 children, was burnt alive, also for “allegedly” practising witchcraft. This was in Sonari in Sibsagar district. Although the phenomenon is common among the Bodos, the social malady is fast spreading across the state.
Till date, not a single article has appeared in the newspapers of Assam to challenge this shocking, inhuman behaviour. Yet the state claims to be a culturally evolved habitat of highbrows. Assam has a rich literary culture but perhaps there are too few women columnists. The galaxy of male writers is unlikely to take up an issue concerning women. They are more comfortable writing about politics and the more eclectic issues of statecraft.
Women who are branded witches are usually elderly widows or spinsters and the reason for killing them is to usurp their property. That such brutality can be allowed to happen with such impunity in the 21st century shows the complete failure of the state. Can kangaroo courts made up of mindless mobs be the judge and jury and give the call to “kill” someone because she is “allegedly” a witch? Where is the scientific evidence? How can anyone possess super-human powers to cause harm to another human being? Can the state simply sit back and watch while this pernicious witch-hunt against women of a certain age continues?
As a woman I am saddened that women with 4 and 5 children should be murdered through the active connivance of their own children. I am sure that all other women in the villages of Assam, with grown up children and who are no longer in a position to perform hard manual labour or to earn and invest in the family kitty, will be feeling very insecure. They, too, might wonder when they will be branded witches and done to death. The killings are so brutal that one wonders which age Assam is living in? Is this 21st century Assam whose metros are dotted with swanky malls and palatial homes? That barely 200 km away there are acts of savagery the state in unable to prevent?
I want to ask the Government of Assam and the 2 women parliamentarians – Bijoya Chakraborty and Rani Narah – what they have done to contain this menace of witch-hunting of their own kind? Are they aware about the ritual of first accusing women of practising witchcraft and then lynching them to death? Is this not the single biggest threat to all women widows of Assam across society? Have these 2 women leaders called public meetings to awaken society to this atrocious gender discrimination? Why are only women accused of having the powers to practice witchcraft? And why are widows the targets? I want to ask the district administration of Sonitpur whether the body of Lakshmi Gaur has been exhumed and cases drawn up against her killers.
How many past cases of witch-burning and witch-killing have there been in that district? What is the fate of the accused? Are they out on bail? Have they been acquitted? We need to know this and we need to know it fast.
No popular government can stand by and allow these archaic practices to continue in the age of rocket science. Some women activists I spoke to said they rushed to these places when they heard of such witch-hunts but were unable to do much since the communities were wildly averse to any outside interference. Apparently the district administration also prefers to look the other way. Is the state not supposed to defend the weak? But in the case of poor, widowed women, there are obviously very few people to take up their cause.
Last year, on a visit to Bongaigaon for a meeting largely attended by Bodo people, one heard this issue of witch-hunting being discussed. The majority of people at the meeting were men but they seemed to feel the agony of helpless women meeting a cruel end after they had performed their maternal duties. One learnt, as one had done in the past too, that the prime reason behind the killing of elderly women was to get hold of their property, which had probably come to them after the death of their husbands. The sons are impatient to wait for their mothers to die natural deaths so they connive to kill them, albeit with an excuse that they are witches, so they escape arrest. This has to be the grossest violation of human rights in Assam today.
Assam is also known for its academic and intellectual grasp. But the scholars have skirted this issue. Is it because the subject is not as explosive as insurgency? Truly, the hypocrisy rankles. And what about women’s studies centres and women’s organisations across the state? Why are they allowing a mob to rule the fates of women?
This is a time when we need the likes of a Raja Ram Mohan Roy to lead the campaign. In his time, Ram Mohan Roy fought the evils of sati and child marriage. Today, someone with courage must emerge to challenge the witch-hunting of elderly women.
Sadly, the media too has paid scant attention to witch-hunting. The story of the 2 women who were killed within a day of each other after being accused of practising witchcraft received scant reportage. No comments were taken from the district administration as to why it could not prevent the killings. No coverage was given about the reactions of the people around that village. Did they all believe that Lakshmi Gaur was a witch? If so, how did they arrive at that conclusion? Is there anything suspicious behind her killing?
I know such investigations are the work of the police, but aren’t we journalists also supposed to do our own spooking so we can arrive at the truth? This could trigger some concerned citizens to start a campaign against this systematic, ruthless extermination of elderly women. There is no bigger curse for a woman as when her own son or daughter is unable to protect her life or becomes a conspirator in her death. It’s time for women’s organisations across the country to intervene. This outrage against women has to stop.
(The writer is Editor, The Shillong Times)(Courtesy: TS)