Throughout the year of 1692, more than two hundred people were accused of practicing ‘witchcraft’ in colonial Massachusetts, out of which thirty were found guilty, of those nineteen were mercilessly burnt at the stakes. This episode, universally identified as the Salem Witch Trails, is one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It has often been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process. An overwhelming majority of people accused and convicted of witchcraft, during the trials, were women (about 78%) as the prevailing Puritan belief was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were. Their souls were seen as unprotected in their weak and vulnerable bodies. Moreover, women who did not conform to the norms of the Puritan society were more likely to be the target of an accusation, especially those who were unmarried or did not have children.
More than 300 years later, recurrent incidences dangerously similar to the Salem Trials have been recorded in the Chirang district of Assam, India, where entire village communities have taken law into their own hands by viciously punishing anyone who’s seen with scepticism. In the wee hours of 2nd August, 2020, the ghost-quiet night of Chirang echoed with bloodcurdling screams, when at least four persons including two women were brutally assaulted by a group of people who suspected them of practicing witchcraft. “The aberrant group of villagers, identifying as ‘witch-hunters’, broke into their houses and started to beat the victims without clarifying any facts”, informed a senior police officer. The victims have been identified as Parmeshwar Sutradhar (48), Manjula Sutradhar (42), Logai Basumatary (36) and Gendri Basumatary (60). The police rushed to the spot and rescued all the victims on the same night and admitted them to the nearby Runikhata Hospital for medical assistance. Later, a peace meeting was organised at the village by the Chirang police to create awareness against the belief of black magic and superstitions among the citizens in the area. Presently, the investigation is on as the police are still on the search for some unidentified miscreants who were the front runners of the attack.
Recent times have seen an ever-increasing trend of crime against women in Assam, along with a surge in “witch-hunting” cases. 20 out of the reported 27 districts have recounted frequent cases linked to the practice of both witchcraft and witch-hunting. However, this is merely on the scanty proportion of actual happenings as most of it goes unrecorded and unknown. Furthermore, in many of the villages, the village committee prohibits their people from speaking to outsiders about such incidents. In a place where quarrels with neighbours more often than not incite witchcraft allegations, recurring silent killings take place in many areas to win over the ‘demon’ that the villagers assume. The issue of inaccessibility in these cases acts as a trump card because the more inaccessible an area is, the more is the grip of the superstitious belief- where it is very easy and safe to denounce anyone as a witch. Unluckily, tackling of cases, like that in Chirang is immensely perplexing and complex, plus these intertwine entire communities, along with their customary religious and cultural belief systems. In the end, the guilty are seldom punished while the villages keep on sanctioning horrific punishments meted out to the accused ‘witch’.
Witch-hunt, an infectious custom does affect both the sexes, but due to its high propensity of female victims, is undoubtedly a gendered practice. The patriarchal setup of the society, that we live in today, very clearly explains as to how patriarchy forms the base of any crime and very often women challenging the patriarchal societal norms and breaking the stereotype of ‘ideal women’, have been found to be victimized. The acute lack of consciousness, knowledge and literacy, forms the backbone in all cases of “witch-hunting”. Run-of-the-mill issues like property matters, persistent diseases, death on account of an undiagnosed illness, food crop failures and income shocks are thought to be the work of the witch and in most cases, accusation takes place in respect of the person with antagonist relation. Villagers’ dependence on the local Ojha (medicine men) also makes them fall prey to misguidance and misinformation. The cases of witch-hunting might appear for outsiders as mere backwardness and superstitious belief, but the impact as a result of it on the victim’s life is far from the imagination of an outsider. The actual mental and emotional upheavals that the victims and families have to go through leave far-reaching deep scars on their lives.
In the already exasperating times of the ever-threatening pandemic, attacks like these, when heard of, can make hair on one’s back stand like poisoned needles and feel like nothing but a severe quandary to our ‘advancing’ Indian society. Furthermore, accessibility along with superstitions fuels these circumstances which lead to extreme brutalization of the accused along with many collateral victims. Psychological issues ranging from projecting one’s own irrational fears, need for mass attention, and clinical hysteria also make people believe in the existence of witches leading them to carry out “witch-hunting”. It is thus imperative to raise awareness and provide mass education in regions like Chirang where cases like these are commonplace. For in societies which lack enlightenment, everything which cannot be explained by logic, will be related to superstitious beliefs like witchcraft, possessions, black magic and the evil eye.