Tinsukia: It was a fine day when Debari Nagbonshi, 60, stepped out of her home after bath and saw the new bride of a neighbour hanging her red sari on the clothes line. "What a pretty sari," she complimented. A day later, the bride fell ill and immediately all fingers pointed at Nagbonshi, branding her a "witch".
There have been numerous such cases in tribal-dominated areas in Assam, mostly of women, either widowed or living alone, who are beaten, and sometimes even killed, after being branded as witches. The main reason behind this is a lack of awareness and poor health facilities or property disputes, say activists.
"The men in the village pounded on our door late that night (in April)...dragged me out and started beating me with sticks till I was bleeding all over," Nagbonshi said.
While it`s difficult to put an estimate of the number of women killed, according to the Assam home department, a total of 116 people, including 66 women, have been killed over the past 10 years in the name of witch-hunt.
Regina Daimari`s is another case. When 23-year-old Daimari`s 50-year-old husband died two years ago, he left behind some land. Soon his relatives began hounding the young widow for the property, but she resisted. They then branded her a witch and got her thrown out of the house.
"My husband`s relatives demanded to take over the property, while I would be given a maintenance amount. Their argument was a widow does not need much to live on. When I disagreed, they threatened me. Next thing I knew, there was talk in the village that I was a witch and I had cast an evil eye on my husband...," said Daimari, a resident of Jorhat in upper Assam.
So strong was the people`s belief in black magic, that they were scared to even let Daimari stay in the village. She was thrown out of her home and sent back to her parents` house. She now stays on her own in a town close by and lives on odd jobs.
Such cases mostly happen in the tribal-dominated areas and, more often than not, go unregistered by the police simply because no one registers a case.
Roseboti Randiya, a 48-year-old health worker who works in a tea garden in Tinsukia district, has been doubling up as an activist trying to spread awareness against the social evil.
"I have been trying to explain to people that these are just superstitions and that witches don`t exist," Randiya added.
In Kokrajhar, police and district authorities are struggling to arrest macabre witch-hunting practices.
On Oct 9 an impoverished elderly couple was beaten to death, dragged for five kilometres and thrown into a river in the district for allegedly practising black magic. Bigiram Narzary, 60, and Urbushi Narzary, 55, were blamed by the villagers for a number of deaths in the area in the recent past.
The National Human Rights Commission, according to a statement, had taken up the matter with the police in Kokrajhar in May this year when four women were hacked to death in one month, allegedly for practising witchcraft.
"Because of poor health facilities, illiteracy and lack of awareness, people go to `ojha` or quacks for treatment; they claim to practise magic," Randiya said.
"In some cases, it is a matter of property dispute. If a woman is widowed and people have their eyes on her property, they cook up some story, brand her a witch and oust her from her land," activist Sujata Sharma added.
Realizing the urgency of the issue, Assam Police have joined hands with the state women`s commission to activate community policing against witch-hunting, an official statement said.
The commission has also prepared and submitted to the government a draft law on witch-hunting, so that a strong law can be put in place against this evil practice, in line with other states like Bihar and Jharkhand.
Usha Dewani of New Ways - a group of comic activists, which spreads messages of social importance through comics - said her group has been holding workshops on the issue. "The aim of our workshop in villages and universities is to change opinion and bring about a change," Dewani said.