Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30
Amarjyoti Borah | The News Minute | January 23, 2015 | 5:52 pm IST  Follow @AmarjyotiBorah1 In 1985, her eldest son Dharmeshwar was branded witch by some villagers after he developed a mental illness, and a ‘quack’ doctor even said that he would die within 3 days. Today, Birubala Rabha's son is very much alive. But that terrible experience made Birubala Rabha, belonging to the Rabha community in the state, start her crusade against witch hunting in Assam “It was then that I realized how some villagers with the help of such quacks fooled people, and in many cases, families of the victims distanced themselves from those branded witch. Such cases left me disturbed. But for an uneducated, rural tribal women like me, I had no idea how to fight,” says Rabha. According to reports, 81 people have been killed between 2008 to October 2013 for being 'witches'. The menace of witch-hunting has plagued several tribal communities in Assam for quite some time now; this, despite numerous efforts made by the government to reign in the social evil.  However, the effort of Rabha seems to be making a difference.  Rabha, who is in her mid 60s now, has been battling this practice since the 1980s, and on a few occasions has faced death threats as well. Things, however, were very difficult for her in the beginning, and on several occasions she was threatened with her life because she advocated for innocent women who had been branded as witches. “Apart from that, the people here boycotted me socially. I fought back saying I was born and brought up here and also got married here, and that I was going to stay here,” said Rabha. For Rabha, the battle was all the more ardouos, because she is a woman fighting against patriarchy—most of the quacks, branding people as witches, were men and the victims mostly happened to be women. “I have personally rescued 42 people till date—and out of them 39 were women and only 3 men. Even among those, whom I have rescued with the help of others, a majority have been found to be women,” said Rabha. Rabha’s efforts, with the help of some Civil Society Groups, gave birth to the Mission Birubala in 2011. Since the campaign began, the awareness level among the women has reportedly started to increase. “The women living in the areas where witch-hunting is prevalent are very much suppressed and they rarely have the voice to speak out. However when we started the movement, they became aware and some even raised their voices against the crime,” said Rabha. Birubala Rabha at an awareness program She further added due to increased awareness, many cases of witch hunting, which earlier used to go unnoticed, are reported these days. Rabha hails from the Thakur Villa village, a remote region in Goalpara district along the Assam-Meghalaya border, and has been fighting to eradicate the superstition of killing innocent people in the name of witch-hunting over these years. According to her, many are branded witches by some to achieve cheap goals, some of which include land grabbing, robbing or sexual assault on women. Citing an incident, she said that a few years ago a village youth tried to establish physical relation with a widow, but when she refused to give in to him, the woman was branded a witch. Individuals and old couples are also targeted with an aim to usurp their property.  Birubala Rabha The state government’s stance on the issue is worrisome, Rabha feels. “We need a strong law to curb this menace. Many innocent people have lost their lives and many others have been tortured over the years. The government can do a lot more if they are willing to,” said Rabha, the disappointment evident in her voice. For Birubala Rabha, the journey is far from over. She plans to travel, with a 15-member team, and campaign against witch hunts in the state. "I will continue to work against the evil practice of branding people 'witches' and killing them. Now, along with likeminded people, I have decided to spread awareness in rural areas," Rabha said.  Her team, comprising women from different walks of life, as well as survivors of witch hunts, have been working in different parts of the state, and it has yielded positive response. "I feel the participation of victimized women will make a huge difference in our efforts to bring change. I hope we get a positive response. We will also talk to the village-heads where such incidents have occurred," said Rabha. Tweet Follow @thenewsminute

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