Curbing witch-hunting: An Assam police officer’s relentless campaign
New Delhi: Assam has become the latest state to implement an act prohibiting witch-hunting but a prominent activist against this social evil feels awareness in terms of education and health should also go hand in hand with strong legislation.
The Assam assembly unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015, on August 13, around three weeks after an elderly woman was beheaded on charges of practising witchcraft in a village in the state’s Sonitpur district.
“Legal intervention is not enough. You have to supplement this with social actions,” Kuladhar Saikia, additional director general of Assam Police, told IANS in an interview here. Saikia is the brain behind Project Prahari (Sentinel), an active campaign against this social prejudice.
Way back in 2001, he was posted as deputy inspector general (Western Range) in Kokrajhar after completing a course on leadership and management at the Pennsylvania State University in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship. While going through previous cases, he came upon a case of five people being killed at a village in a single night. On investigation, he found that the five were victims of witch-hunting and the accused were their own kith and kin and neighbours.
That very year – 2001 – Saikia started Project Prahari. Because of its relentless fight against social prejudices, the project managed to draw the attention of the media and civil society. Till now, around 50 villages all over Assam have now come under the project after the state’s director general of police declared it as a state-level police project.
Case by case analysis of incidents of witch-hunting threw up related issues of inter-personal relations, rural power dynamics, property grabbing and social issues like lack of a modern healthcare system that led to poor and helpless women being branded as witches, persecuted and killed, often in public view.
According to Saikia, the Prahari model has resulted in the formation of a coalition of different stakeholders in society like women’s groups, student bodies, science clubs and development and law enforcement agencies.
“A very significant effect of this model has been on two fronts,” he explained.
“One is creating a feeling of community ownership of social assets like communication infrastructure, roads and school buildings. This has led to accessibility to interior areas and spread of education,” he said.
“School buildings destroyed by terrorists have been repaired by villagers, the disturbed educational system has been restored and superstitions are being removed.”
The second, Saikia said, is creating health awareness.
“The villagers have been encouraged to approach modern healthcare facilities rather than taking recourse to unqualified quacks since a lot of times, the problem of witchcraft arises due to avoidance of modern medicine,” he stated.
Under Prahari, regular health camps are organised. Through qualified experts, villagers are imparted knowledge about health and hygiene and local women are being trained.
But at the same time, Saikia is concerned that knowledge of traditional medicinal systems is being lost due to witch-hunting.
“However, it can be mentioned that some of the village quacks’ knowledge about indigenous medicine needs to be documented since all this knowledge is passed on from generation to generation orally,” he stated.
Today, top management schools are taking up the Prahari project as a model of change in management with law enforcement agencies as catalysts.
“Concerted efforts by all sections of civil society will have a better impact apart from the strict implementation of the (new Assam) Act by the police in reducing the menace of witch-hunting,” said Saikia, who is also a well-known litterateur.