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In Assam, where witch-hunting is still practiced, Birubala Rabha is a crusader, trying to fight against it. Here’s her story.
She is a common household name in Assam. A lot has already been written about her, especially after she recently won the prestigious Upendra Nath Brahma Soldier of Humanity award in Kokrajhar.
Birubala Rabha, who is in her 60s now, began her crusade against witch hunting in the mid-1980s. A tribal from Thakurbilla, a village on the Assam-Meghalaya border, she has made it her life’s goal to fight against branding of women as witches. Though it is observed that women are branded as witches, occasionally in Assam, even men can be branded, killed or maimed. Her struggle against the process of witch-hunting began when her son was branded as a witch and diagnosed to die within three days because he had an intellectual disability. In several interviews, Birubala speaks of how this diagnosis was her initial trigger to fight for their rights. She travelled from village to village on foot to speak against the practice. Whenever she received information about a branding, she promptly when to the village to rescue the woman. She has rescued several women from their death over the years. She states boldly that the fight is against patriarchy because most of the quacks are men and most of the victims of this practice are women. Her constant and steady work has led to growing trust among the local officials who now assist her in her work.
This wasn’t always the case. Birubala had received severe threats to her life and was even ostracised. She faced social boycott for her courageous actions. She resisted and refused to leave the place where she had grown up. She continued to work to spread awareness against such superstitions. In her arguments against witch hunting, Birubala speaks of the complications because of the low awareness, access to education and access to health care in the remote tribal areas.
Part of the problem was there was no legal recourse to deal with the problem. As part of Mission Birubala which was started in 2011, local organisations, activists and women were campaigning for the law to be passed. In August 2015, Assam Assembly passed a bill outlawing the practice of witch hunting. The Bill had provisions for imprisonment up to seven years along with a fine up to Rs 5 lakh for identifying and calling a person witch. The Bill also discusses various measures that the administration and police need to take to educate people about witch hunting.
Her fight against witch hunting is driven by a simple message, “Who gives us the right to take lives?”
Cover image via Shutterstock