Written by 16:02 World

Birubala Rabha, Who Battled Witch Hunting in India, Dies at 75

Birubala Rabha, an Indian social activist who fought the practice of branding women as witches in the country’s remote northeast, died on May 13 in Guwahati, the capital of Assam State in that region. She was 75.

Her death, in a hospital, was caused by cancer, her assistant, Usha Rabha, said in an interview. (They were not related.)

So-called witch hunting has been a scourge throughout India, preying on mostly village women who are often single, widowed or otherwise isolated and involved in property or marital disputes. Accused of being witches, they have been tortured and in many cases murdered; from 2010 to 2021, more than 1,500 were killed in India, according to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau.

Ms. Rabha, a slight, bespectacled woman who was born poor in an Assam village, faced down mobs for her work, badgered the police and pushed for legal protection for women. Her efforts were rewarded when legislation outlawing witch hunting was passed in Assam State in 2015. Cases there have dropped sharply, to a few per year from the several a month that were being reported when she began her campaign in the early 2000s, said Usha Rabha, who worked at Mission Birubala, the nongovernmental organization that Birubala Rabha founded.

The victims of witch hunts face gruesome punishments, according to “Contemporary Practices of Witch Hunting,” a 2015 report by the Indian legal nonprofit Partners for Law in Development. They can be subjected to “forcible stripping,” the report said, “being paraded naked in public, cutting or tonsuring of the hair, blackening of the face, cutting off of the nose, pulling of the teeth to ‘defang’, gouging out the eye, whipping, gang rape, forcible consumption of human excreta, cow dung” or “killing by hanging, hacking, lynching or burying alive.”

Ms. Rabha traveled from village to village in Assam to speak out against the practice and declared that there was no such thing as “daini,” or witches. She had long been suspicious of folk superstitions and of medicine men who chanted incantations over young women to drive out what they believed were evil spirits. As a young mother, Ms. Rabha was told by a local medicine man that her mentally ill son would soon die; he didn’t. That false prediction, in the 1980s, was the seed for her advocacy work, which she began in earnest around 2000.

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Last modified: 1 June 2024
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