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Birubala Rabha & Chutni Devi Refuse To Be Silent Against Witch Hunting in India

Posted: May 19, 2021

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Even today, accusations of witchcraft end horrifyingly for women in India. Birubala Rabha and Chutni Devi are two heroines who’ve challenged this practice.

“Burnt me at the stake, you thought I was a witch
… now you just call me a bitch.”
– MARINA (“Man’s World”)

The aforementioned verse from the hit song by singer-poet Marina attests to the patriarchal attitudes harboured against women throughout history. Since time immemorial, patriarchy has sought to control and discipline the bodies of women. Those women who did not conform to the coded expectations were often branded as vamps and witches.

In the early 13th century, Europe became the hunting ground for the infamous ‘witch-hunts’ wherein women suspected of witch craft were imprisoned, tortured or burnt at stake. While this may seem as a mere relic of the medieval era, the sinister practice of witch-hunting continues to haunt the landscape of India to this day.

Just last year, a woman in Assam was marked as a witch and was brutally slain. Such cases of mob-lynching pervade insidiously in several parts of the country, with states like Jharkhand, Assam and Chhattisgarh reporting the greatest number of cases. It might seem easy to label these ‘witch-hunts’ as merely offshoots of superstition and backward illiteracy, but closer inspection reveals a far vicious practice deeply rooted in misogyny and patriarchy.

The deep roots of witchcraft accusations

As far back as history extends, women have had to bear the brunt of being blamed and falsely accused of witchcraft. In Abrahamic religions, Eve is considered to be the source of all troubles of mankind, for eating the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden.

In our cultural context, texts like the Manusmriti mandate that a woman obsequiously obey her husband, however worthless and abusive he may be. Any woman who rebels against such norms is vilified and ostracised. It is under this tradition of misogyny that the noxious practice of witch-hunting thrives.

Coupled with factors like lack of education and proper medicinal facilities in rural areas, women become easy targets for this malignant practice. Owing to the dearth of doctors and pharmacies in the villages, the local healers (ojhas) become the de facto ‘doctors’ for the people. Rather than prescribing medicines or herbs, these ojhas seek to irrationalise the diseases and problems by blaming susceptible women.

To make sense of tragedies like drought, floods or death of a child, villagers often choose vulnerable women as scapegoats and brand them as witches. Caste and class play a crucial role in determining which women will be branded witches.

Thus, this mostly affects Dalit women, widows, women from weaker section of the economic strata and differently-abled women. Bodily mutilation, sexual humiliation and then the ultimate –  murder – are the horrific ways in which the patriarchal authority of the village seeks to ‘exorcise’ the ‘evil woman’.

But as mentioned above, this equation is far from simple. Often, superstition and orthodoxy have little part to play in determining which woman will be branded as a witch.

There’s also garden-variety envy at play

Many a times, women who have acquired upward mobility via inheritance, property etc are seen as posing a threat to the male dominance. In several cases, jealous neighbours and villagers often conspire to mark such women as witches. This demonisation further serves as a way of stripping these women of their economic agency.

Even if some of these women are lucky enough to escape, their lives are often marred by mental and social trauma. Many face social apathy and boycott from villagers, making economic livelihood difficult for them.

While there have been several laws in place to ensure the banning of these witch-hunting practices, justice is not always meted out. However, in recent years owing to the initiative of many iron-willed women, this insidious practice is being challenged and questioned. Out of the many unsung heroes who have taken up this initiative, the names of Birubala Rabha and Chutni Devi demand a separate mention.

In 2021, out of the one hundred people announced for the prestigious Padma Shri award, fifteen, including Rabha and Devi, were awarded for initiatives in social work. While from different states, the awardees Birubala Rabha (Assam) and Chutni Devi (Jharkhand) shared a common vision: their crusade against witch-hunting.

The backstories of Rabha and Devi

Birubala Rabha, who was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, has become one of the most recognisable voices in the country for her campaign against this malpractice. Having crossed villages and even state borders to protect women falsely accused of witchcraft, Rabha started her project, Mission Birubala, to mix awareness and action for her noble project.

Before starting this brave organisation (which has since garnered immense support from many intellectuals and medical professionals), Rabha lived an ordinary life. Educated only till the fifth grade, she was married off early by her widowed mother. In her village, she witnessed the oppression of several women and for a long time, she herself believed in the existence of witches and superstitions.

It was a personal incident that opened the gates of introspection and reason for Birubala.

When her elder son Dharmeshwar fell sick, Birubala took him to a local quack who pronounced that he was under the spell of a witch and had only a few days left to live. But Dharmeshwar not only lived, but proceeded to get better and better. His resurrection from the disease restored Birubala’s faith in reason, and she began actively raising awareness against the superstitious tradition.

Jharkhand’s Chutni Devi, on the contrary, herself had to experience the horrendous accusation of being labelled a witch. In an interview, Devi detailed how in her village, envy of her land possession branded her a witch. She was assaulted, humiliated and exiled from her village, along with her children.

Despite dire situations and a challenging life, the stoic Chutni Devi refused to succumb to the identity of victimhood. After a few years, she began her own movement to expose the façade of witch-accusations. From listening to the stories of women to providing them with food and shelter, Devi’s efforts have helped not only in providing a safe haven to women, but have also led to a major awareness against orthodoxy in Jharkhand.

These heroes need no flaming swords

Witches and the myths around them have long proliferated our culture. Hollywood has stocked its library with action films around a male protagonist with a long sword, hunting and killing witches. But heroes like Rabha and Devi don’t need any such weapons to assist them in their missions.

Instead, taking their double-edged sword of bravery and reason along with them, these two women continue to challenge the misogynistic tradition with their indefatigable spirit. It is high time that the invaluable legacy of these two women gets a wider distribution. Maybe, a big-screen adaptation? 

Photo of Birubala Rabha by Arijitsenmail, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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A film studies student with interest in gender studies, ecocriticism and animal rights. As a

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