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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Killings strike fear into Indian witch doctors

With a traditional woven cloth covering her hair, elaborate jewelry and a red mark on her forehead signifying her married status, Dimbeswari Bhattarai looks like any other woman in this corner of isolated northeast India.

But Bhattarai, 62, is far from ordinary.

She claims to possess special powers which enable her to cure diseases, predict the future and drive away evil spirits. Bhattarai is a witch doctor, or ojha, as the tribal people of Assam state call them.

Ojhas are figures of awe, fear, and suspicion among the illiterate village people living in remote areas of the state.

But now the tables have turned and it is Bhattarai who is living in fear in her village of Uttarkuchi after more than a dozen killings of ojhas in Assam over the past few months.

Police say that around 300 people have been killed in the state in the past five years for allegedly practicing witchcraft. The killers are believed to be dissatisfied customers who believed the ojhas' potions or spells did not work.

"These days, after the recent killings, I am scared. But I have decided to continue practicing even if it means death," she told Reuters in her village mud house built on the edge of a forest, 80 km (50 miles) north of the state capital, Dispur.

Her neighbors say they don't believe in her powers. They recall an incident in which residents of two nearby villages came to blows after she made a wrong prediction.

"We have lots of such ojhas here. But their claims are very hard to believe. A handful of us know they are fooling people and sooner or later they have to face the music," said Nakul Chandra Boro, a local schoolteacher.


Many villagers turn to ojhas to cure diseases such as malaria, jaundice and pneumonia which are widespread in the far-flung hilly areas along the India-Bhutan border.

Home to half a dozen insurgent groups, some fighting for an independent homeland and others for more political autonomy and tribal rights, Assam has largely failed to attract much investment or boost the standard of living of its people.

Uttarkuchi is a short drive from the frontier with Bhutan. There is no electricity, safe drinking water or health care facilities for its 2,500 residents.

Anyone seriously ill has to be taken by handcart or bicycle along a rough road which passes through thick bamboo groves and forest to the nearest hospital about 10 km (six miles) away.

As urban India hurtles headlong toward a 21st century way of life, the daily rhythms of many of the Bodo and Santhal tribes who live in the remote province are guided by ancient superstitions and a belief in evil spirits.

Sociologists say that many of the ojhas are con artists, making money out of gullible and vulnerable people.

"Illiteracy and lack of proper health care facilities are behind the powers of the ojhas in tribal-dominated areas," said Bhupen Sarma of the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Changes and Development in Guwahati, Assam's main city.

Nripen Patgiri, a 45-year-old shop owner who claims to have ojha powers, says he learned magic spells from a book a few years ago. Yet the workers at his shop insist he is illiterate.

Bhattarai said she obtained her powers 32 years ago when a middle-aged man dressed in white appeared to her in a dream and passed on the names of disease-curing herbs.

"He still visits me in my dreams," she said, as villagers listened.


Problems arise when ojhas' predictions fail to come true, when villagers blame them for casting evil spells, when crops fail, or epidemics sweep through remote hamlets.

"Our medicines and predictions do not work at times when the planetary positions are not favorable," said 57-year-old Mahim Madahi, his breath reeking of local rice beer.

Sometimes when passions run especially high, villagers set up kangaroo courts and sentence ojhas to death, police say. Police rarely file charges because there are seldom any witnesses.

"Not a single person has been convicted of witch killing in a court in the last five years due to lack of evidence," said Kuladhar Saikia, a senior police officer, who is trying to educate the tribes and rid villages of a belief in black magic.

Police said that some alleged ojha killings were nothing more than murders carried out by people with their eyes on land owned by the victims.

In an effort to stop the murders of witch doctors, officials are now considering fining villages where killings take place.

"We need to take a long-term approach to stop this menace," said Anwaruddin Choudhury, deputy commissioner of Baska, a district which has seen a large number of deaths. "But the key lies in education to put an end to such practices."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited.


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