Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Attacking Witches In India

Showing Christian love.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is the book by the late great Christopher Hitchens where the author methodically and with great flourish exposes the deleterious effects of religion. Religion blunts reason to the point of it being a wee nub. Religion makes good people say and do horrific things. Religion adds gasoline to the already simmering societal fires. And in this weeks' Economist is an example of faith's wonders on motion:  Witchcraft in Assam - Toil and trouble.
RANJITA BASUMATARY does not look much like a witch. Outside her home in Udalguri on the plains of the north-eastern state of Assam, she hangs a silk gamosa scarf around this correspondent’s neck and invites him in for tea. In early 2007 Mrs Basumatary was driven from her original village after her neighbours accused her of being a dain—a witch. Around 100 villagers surrounded her home and beat her with sticks, leaving her badly bloodied and bruised. After receiving death threats, she fled with her husband and three children.
Where are the holy men? Where are the wise greybeards who can surely dispel such barbaric behavior amongst the populace? After all, isn't Islam the religion of peace? Isn't Hinduism the faith of a happy elephant-god who rides on a giant mouse? What about Christians, surely they can dispel the myth of witchcraft?
Surely not.
People in Assam mostly follow mainstream Hindu teachings, but tantric sects continue to offer up animals in ritual sacrifices to the mother goddess, Shakti. Animist beliefs persist among the state’s 60-odd recognised tribes and sub-tribes. The arrival of Muslim migrants and the spread of Christianity by American missionaries have not dispelled local superstitions.
I'd wager if there was suddenly a surge of skeptical missionaries there would be a drop off of all superstitions -- witchcraft, Hindu as well as the Abrahamic myths. There are only two problems with this scenario. One, there are no skeptical missionaries to my knowledge. Two, if there were skeptical missionaries there would be an extra expense of supplying them with armed guards. The last thing the superstitious want to hear is that they are superstitious.
In rural Assam the ojha, a traditional medicine man, is revered for his skills at countering black magic. According to folklore, the medicine man learns his skills, but witches are born with their powers. In patriarchal communities this is a convenient distinction. It is rare to find a female ojha.
This I find amazing. Somehow women are not the center of a patriarchal faith-based society. Though there may be some male dains (witches) somehow that little skeptical voice in my head says that these witches are mostly women. Perhaps that little voice is wrong. A quick internet search lead me to this article from The Statesman in 2002, Witch hunting plagues rural Assam.
Jyotsna Chatterjee, an activist of the Delhi-based Joint Women’s Programme, blamed the problem on the vested interests of a “patriarchal society” ... “reluctant to give women their property rights.” Chatterjee claimed that widows and older single women were specially vulnerable, made easy targets and were attacked “after being branded witches.” “The standard excuse seems to be that it is a family dispute and there is no need to take the matter to court,” she said.
Sorry for that short digression to The Statesman -- now back to The Economist piece.
In early-modern Europe and North America paranoia about witchcraft surfaced at times of great tension. This corner of Assam has been embroiled in a decades-old struggle for statehood by Assam’s largest tribe, the Bodo.
Mrs Basumatary is a devout Christian. But local jealousy seems to have prompted the accusations of witchcraft. Her family had prospered, leasing livestock to other villagers. It led to resentment. When children in the village fell sick, the ojha accused Mrs Basumatary of casting spells—his own charms and potions having failed. Her case is not an isolated one. At least 17 people were killed in witch-hunts in the area last year. Mrs Basumatary’s family is still too scared to return to its old village.
Want to make a bad situation worse? Add faith to the mix and shake.

This is Purgatory.


  1. Looks like some things never change...All religions seem to have the misogyny gene. People often wonder why I do what I do (blog and bitch). It is stories like the one you describe that people need to hear about. Thanks for posting it.

    Hitch's book is great. It is one of my favorite reads.

  2. Its is true what you have said.I am myself from Assam and I know well about what you call the Dayni Hatya(witch burning). It is because of the greedy male relatives of a widow who doesn't want to have her husband's money or a poor women who somehow may have offended the upper class of the village, a newly maaried women who is poor and her in laws and the list goes on and on. A lot of women have been trying to fight this injustice. You know it's alarmingly common that when people get sick especially children people say, " maybe this because of that .......(name of the misfortunate woman). She was looking at our/your child. She muat have cast some spells or given him potions. that witch' And so it begins. people gossip and if the child becomes seriously ill then it becomes hell for that poor women. These yoiu can even see in cites where( they say ill you say ojha) they tend to go to ojha first and ojha later and when the fradulent ojhas stupidities don't work he blames it on some misfortunate women


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