Priyanka Dass Saharia

Originally published in Countercurrents

Bihurama Ganju, a resident of Gurunjuli village along the Assam-Arunchal border, was beaten to death in early July by fellow villagers for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Her assailants believed the practice to be the cause behind a long spell of disease faced by the community, and though 40 people involved have been arrested by the police, the incident is one of several  "witchcraft" lynchings that have gone on in the area.

Women have always been the most vulnerable group in a conflict space such as Northeast India, where a constant state of mild violence creates favorable ground for a breakdown in democratic practices - a breeding ground for social resentment instilling a perpetual state of paranoia and hopelessness in it's inhabitants. It's a situation that precipitates incidents like the one above.

There has been some coverage of this problem in the Indian media, and it remains endemic to the social landscape of Assam’s rural areas. Most of these incidents are located in the border regions, which might explain a greater correlation between cross-border social problems and an atmosphere of violence and mistrust in which such hostile acts can come into being.

Women have been ostracised, thrown out of villages and isolated by families amid allegations of witchcraft or more generally bringing "bad luck" to the village. Though a few groups (Assam Mahila Samata Socety and Goalpara, for example) are promoting a negotiated approach for tackling the complexities of the problem and the belief systems which drive it, such attempts have been small in scale and on a non-committal basis due to lack of administrative engagement and public response from the afflicted areas themselves.

“People don't talk about anything. We asked everyone about the incidents and rarely would people even confirm that the killing took place. They were very uncooperative,” said Suranjana, a social worker.  

There have been a handful of women from the villages who have decided to break free from the vicious cycle of violence and have approached the aid groups. “A gaon burah couldn’t take a bold step against witch hunting, and that surprised me," wrote Birubala Rabha, a 60-year-old widow from Thakubilla, Assam, in an article she penned recently. "And destitute women are the usual targets. When I raised my voice against it, the villagers went against me too. They harassed me, questioned me, but I tried to stand my ground. Had I not been involved with the [civic group] Mahila Samiti as a secretary they would have tortured me too. They were a little scared because of my position. They tried to force me to resign, and when I refused, they ostracised me as well. Quacks are very much a part of a tribal society’s belief system, and unless one sees development through education, these villagers wouldn’t want to even open their minds to a discussion.”  

Many activists have claimed that the problem is embedded in old traditions, but the larger issue of development remains in the periphery of the discussion. These villages lack institutional support when it comes to education or health, and these practices reflect the quest for answers and solutions to situations. Blaming other vulnerable and destitute sections of the community stems not just from faith, but functions on a deeper level - a desperate attempt to find solutions and answers to the underlying problems of development that the region faces.  Many people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from the conflict in the region, as well, adding another layer to the socio-economic and psychological problems. 

It is also worth noting how single women and widows have been the sole targets of these hate crimes, whereas having a man to protect you has proven instrumental for a perception of dignity and identity for a woman. The Manipur Guns Survivors’ Network has been working with women of the region whose families have been affected by the gun violence in the cross border conflict, aiding in their capacity-building activities as a means of rehabilitation. Perhaps a necessary step would be to look at the role of alternative communication strategies which would focus on a mix of raising awareness and capacity building through women’s collectives designed specifically to provide grassroots support within the communities.

Goverment records show that 66 women have been killed from 2005 to mid 2013, and many others have been publicly humiliated, ostracised and forcefully trapped in various horrific "purification processes." The Assam Commission for Women conducted a survey in 2013 showing that labelling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores, or even punish her for turning down sexual advances from men. 

There has to come about a change in temperament with a more inclusive reconceptualisation of "development" in conflict areas, which has always been limited by a broader focus on planning and "national security," as opposed to "victim" rehabilitation.

Priyanka Dass Saharia is a final year Sociology student in Delhi School of Economics.

Image via Jezebel.