In her mid-60s, Birubala Rabha looks like any tribal Rabha woman next door. What distinguishes her from the others is her commitment to fight the evil practice of witch-hunting -- after being at the receiving end three decades ago.
A native of Thakurvila village, located in Assam’s Goalpara district on the border with Meghalaya, Birubala’s campaign has prompted the state government to mull legislation to stop the social evil.
Since the 1980s, Birubala has been running an organisation called Mission Birubala which tours different parts of the state throughout the year to spread awareness against witch-hunting.
“It’s a long story of struggle but I am happy that things have improved a little bit. But we cannot stop here and we have miles to go till the last man on earth is educated against witch-hunting,” she said.
“I am happy that I have been able to save 35 people, who had been branded as witches by their own people in different parts of the state,” Birubala said.
Birubala’s story began in 1985 after some of the villagers branded her son, “who was suffering from some mental illness”, as a witch. Her husband took the boy to a quack who said he would die in three days. However, Birubala’s son survived, even as the villagers tried to chase them away from the village.
“When my son survived, I made up my mind to fight the evil practice,” Birubala recounted. “It was tough as the villagers created hurdles in my endeavour. However, I was determined. Today, the same villagers help me in my work,” she said. And her son is pretty much around too.
Birubala now leads a team of 15 to 20 women, including those who were branded as witches in the past. They travel with the NGOs working in the field to spread awareness against witch-hunting.
“I have been told that the Assam government is trying to bring a tough law to end witch-hunting. It is a good move but I believe right education is the need of the hour to end this superstition,” Birubala said.
“But I do accept that a tough law will he helpful as it will deter people from committing crimes against people by branding them as witches,” she said.
Birubala, who is a member of the village Mahila Samiti, was invited by the Assam Mahila Samata Society (AMSS) in Goalpara to address on the issue of witch-hunting.
After joining AMSS, Birubala started addressing public meetings to speak against the evil practice.
Over the years, she has received several awards, including an honorary doctorate conferred by Gauhati University last year.
Birubala knows that the road ahead is tough, but is determined to soldier on.
“I believe in my fight for womanhood against patriarchy,” she said, adding: “The quacks, who are mostly men, brand the women as witches.”
Birubala said the greed for land and property, and revenge are the usual motives to label someone as a witch.
“Recently, when we were fighting the case of Anjali Hajong, I came to know that a man in the village tried to establish a physical relationship with her. But when she refused, the man got her branded as a witch,” Birubala narrated. “We were lucky to save her due to timely intervention,” she said.
Old couples and lonely, helpless people are often branded as witches by “evil people” who want to grab their property, Birubala added.
Last year, then Agriculture Minister Rockybul Hussain had said that 123 women have been killed in the name of witch-hunting across the state between 2005 and 2014.
Official records show that 13 women were killed in 2005 while six were killed in 2014. Besides, hundreds of women were tortured in areas dominated by Rabha, Bodo and Tea tribes.
It’s a social evil which will take time to disappear, but with crusaders like Birubala leading the charge, the fight against witch hunting will certainly be effective one day.