It is important to define superstition and other such beliefs which invariably harm people. People have been killed on the basis of flimsy allegations, such as practising witchcraft or black magic. A lack of clarity as to what constitutes witchcraft or black magic, for instance, has allowed the perpetrators of the crime to take refuge in the amorphous nature of the allegations. It would be easier for the police to book murderers once the crime is clearly defined and specific laws to deal with it are in place.
Despite the loss of lives in cases of witch-hunting and black magic, why did not policy makers in the region enact a law against these evils?
Policy makers are not known to be pro-active or to take suo moto actions against anyone for wrong-doing or to propose enlightened laws until they are pushed to the wall. This unfortunately is what has happened to our democracy. Politicians follow the path of least resistance. Even in the 16 August incident in Meghalaya where three people were lynched on the pretext that they were snake worshipers(U Theln), many of the politicians took the side of the mob because they saw their supporters in the group.
In the Northeast, we have seven states and in each state there are groups that still believe in superstitions and use superstitions to camouflage their evil intent. We need twin efforts of bringing mass awareness and also a law against such inhuman acts.
According to government figures, 80 people have been killed and 17 have been tortured from January 2006 to February 2011 due to witch-hunting. Similar incidents keep happening in the rest of Northeast. Do you feel the police treats them similar to other criminal cases and fails to sensitively respond to them?
Those alleged to be witches, sorcerers, etc are usually killed by a mob which is incited by family members or enemies. It is difficult to pin down individuals from an entire mob unless someone gives evidence about who committed the act. Since such killings are among clans and close-knit communities, we usually don’t have witnesses. This weakens the police case and does not result in a chargesheet. Civil society has to be more pro-active and compel the police to take their investigative work seriously and deliver results.
There is a genuine desire among rational-thinking citizens that such cases of mob-killing not be repeated. The consensus is that while individuals have a right to their beliefs, those beliefs cannot be used to harm other human beings.
Often, tribal laws and traditions lead to wrong beliefs on black magic and sorcery. Do you view these customs as an impediment?
I repeat: we may have our indigenous faiths and retain our customary practices, but anything that harms another individual or community should be discarded as we have to move with the times. Civilisation means jettisoning old, harmful practices and embracing enlightened ideas.
Despite the prolonged campaign against witch-hunting, why is the practice still prevalent in the Northeast?
This is because it is always difficult to go against tradition and customary practices. But the Government must not succumb to their pressure as it has a mandate to protect the life and property of all citizens.
What can the state governments in the Northeast do to curb this evil?
Governments should use all its channels to create awareness. The Art and Culture Departmentt should become active. The school curricula should speak about harmful practices arising out of faulty belief systems as education is a great equaliser. Moreover, civil society should reach out to villages.
How far has superstitions and acts of witch-hunting added to the crime against women in Northeast India?
In Assam and other states, women have been killed after being branded witches. In Meghalaya it is mostly men who have been targeted because it is believed that they physically abduct and kill people to extract blood for the U Thlen.
Despite several flagship schemes for rural development and employment generation in remote rural areas, social evils remain deep-rooted. Who is to blame for this?
Information dissemination on key issues has always been very weak. Awareness programmes are too scheme-oriented and not holistic. We need awareness programmes that are inclusive of all areas of human life and not just livelihood or health. An awareness-kit should be created by the state publicity department.