Witch-hunt Diaries: A hard-hitting documentary on a medieval ritual that haunts India’s tribal belts

A documentary which reveals a land of magic and mystic rituals – where sorcerers cast spells, devotees turn into deities, and witch doctors into witches.
Witch-hunt Diaries: A hard-hitting documentary on a medieval ritual that haunts India’s tribal belts
Witch-hunt Diaries: A hard-hitting documentary on a medieval ritual that haunts India’s tribal belts
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In July 2015, Kawe Ronghanpi, a 48-year-old widow hailing from the district of Karbi Anglong in Assam was lynched by an angry mob at the temple of a faith healer in her village .

Her crime- she was accused of being a witch and was blamed for a series of unnatural deaths in the village. 

Among those is the mob was a 15-year-old, also said to be the fiercest attacker, who apparently transformed into a goddess and clawed Kawe to death, following which the villagers buried her body. 

Kawe is among the hundreds of people, mostly women, who've been hunted and murdered in India on suspicion of being witches or practicing witchcraft over the last decade. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 2,257 'witchcraft' murders have taken place in the country since 2000.

Faith healing in the remote tribal belts of India's Northeast

"Witch-hunt Diaries" is a recent documentary which investigates Kawe's horrific murder and traces the chain of events that transformed a whole village into witch-hunters. It attempts to shed light on "how a group of people with vested interests are able to use witchcraft & superstition to instigate a community to commit a brutal act of violence".

Part of Undercover Asia, Channel News Asia’s investigative series, the documentary also follows the real time rehabilitation of Raneshwari Rabha, a witch-hunt survivor who lives in a village nearly 200km away from where Kawe was killed. 

Crime Scene - Temple of a self - proclaimed God-woman where the victim Kawe Ronghangpi was lynched to death by an angry mob

Speaking to The News Minute, Mayurica Biswas, creative director of the documentary talks about why they chose witch-hunt as a subject of their film and what was it like to shoot in one of the most remote regions of the country, where "science collides with the supernatural".

"The root causes (of witch-hunts) are often socio-economic than mere superstition - a front for vested interests and deeper motives that revolve around patriarchy, greed, and fear. Yet witch-hunting is illegal in only 5 of India’s 29 states. Therefore, convicting the perpetrators is notoriously difficult in cases like this of mob rule against a witch. Naturally, conviction rates are terrible and policing these crimes are a challenge on the ground," says Biswas. 


It took over five months for the team to research, shoot and finally put together the documentary. 

Investigating an incident of witch-hunt murder in a village where "many were part of the mob that had attacked the victim" came with its own set of challenges. That the region "was in the heart of an insurgency belt, where even the local police fear to tread" meant that the crew "pretty much worked without any formal protection". Biswas, however, says that they received "fantastic support from the doctors at the local Primary Health Care Centre." 

Witch-hunt Survivor Raneshwari Rabha

At one point, during the rehabilitation mission of the witch-hunt victim, the local police, which had initially agreed to help, refused to accompany the rehab team to the victim’s village. They team then had to continue with the mission on their own.

Another major issue that makers of the film faced was of language. 

Biswas says, "As investigative documentary film-makers, one of our bigger challenges was the language barrier as no one in our team spoke Karbi - the local language. This often led to two levels of translation: English to Assamese, and then Assamese to Karbi. Inevitably, this made even basic communication tenuous, let alone complex cross-questions. Interestingly, we ended up having 15 translators on our credit rolls!"

"It was also intriguing to be in a space where belief in the supernatural / paranormal is extremely strong." 

"One of our most exciting shoots," Biswas goes on to mention, "was being part of an experiment by a local faith healer who agreed to not only let us film his secret rituals, but also conduct an experiment that would transfer the spirit of the Gods into volunteers from our crew and induce them into a trance. His only condition was that the participants of the experiment had to take a shower. We eventually headed out to the faith healers' den in the middle of a forest, well after midnight.  It was as eerie as eerie gets.  The results of the 2 hour-long seance were ambiguous to say the least. While members of our crew did experience a slight, ‘unnatural’ tremor, another man who was also a part of the spirit-transfer experiment, did indeed go into a very violent trance-like state."

Spirit Transfer Experiment

Watch the documentary here:

All images courtesy: Mayurica Biswas

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