Burning issues at stake

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This village woman fearlessly raised her voice against witch-hunts in her community and mobilised hundreds of others too.

Biro Bala Rava (extreme right) along with village women.
Biro Bala Rava (extreme right) along with village women.

Biro Bala Rava alias `Bogi' was born in 1949 in Tridumpur, Goalpara district, Assam. While Biro's father, a cultivator, was illiterate, her mother had studied a little. Biro herself studied only up to Class 5. She was married at the age of 15 to Sandhi Charan Rava, a cultivator, and had four children: three boys and a girl.

When her oldest son was suffering from a mental illness, Biro visited an ojha (traditional healer; more like a witchdoctor) who declared that her son was married to a fairy and would die at the birth of her next child. Her son survives to this day.

His illness, however, exposed her to the cruel traditional practices of witchcraft. In fact, Biro's first serious foray into working with the women of her community was her fight against the custom of identifying dainys (witches). The dainys were tried in the panchayat and sentenced to death. Biro was deeply disturbed by the manner in which innocent women were branded as witches, and the superstition that led her community to commit murder in this manner.

Media reports suggest that over the past decade there has been an increase in incidents of witch-hunts in India. Some reports say that several women have been attacked and killed because they were allegedly involved in black magic. Most of the "witches" are women from dalit or tribal communities.

At first Biro campaigned quietly, and then strongly, against the dainy system, appealing to all women in the village to fight to save the lives of innocent women. She campaigned in various women's group meetings and in the panchayat. She cited the example of her own son and thus motivated people to minimise dependence on ojhas and to stop burning `witches'. The fight was long and hard, but eventually she managed to convince more and more women that they were merely in the grip of a superstition.

Since 2000, Biro has fought against the dainy system in close collaboration with the Assam Mahila Samata Society (AMSS). Along with AMSS, Biro organised several panchayat-level meetings, where she spoke forcefully against witch-hunts. And since 2001, there has not been a single instance of witch-hunt. Biro saved the lives of six women who had been condemned as dainys.

In 2003, the Borjhara Tobarani Mahila Samata Sangha (BTMSS) was formed to address other issues too. Biro played a crucial role, visiting women in their homes or meeting them in small groups and discussing their problems.

As BTMSS began expanding its activities, and the women gained in confidence and dedication, the menfolk also began to show interest and attended Sangha meetings. At times, the Sangha would discuss issues like the education of children or alcoholism.

This led to Biro working with other women in her village to confront problems like alcoholism and environmental degradation. She realised that environmental degradation was a serious problem in her area and began to raise awareness on the issue. The upshot: for each tree felled in the village, a fine is to be paid.

The women also collectively ensured that no liquor is sold in the area. Biro also motivated the community about the need for education.

Her crucial contribution has been the mobilisation of women. She identifies problems in her area with the help of the Sangha, and then works with them to find a solution. When she began work, other women in the village did not participate nor were they interested in village-level affairs. There was also no security for those who did volunteer. The village itself was very backward with no roads or government grants to improve facilities.

Biro's perseverance, however, has inspired neighbouring villages as well, where the women have formed sanghas. Many neighbouring villages have stopped selling country liquor. They also protest against police or army atrocities and participate in development work.

Women's Feature Service and Sangat

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 21, 2005)
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