Biro Bala Rava
In Biro Bala Rava's world, hunting those branded as "witches" had an economic aspect. So, she used the modern weaponry of women's education to counter a heinous practice.
Biro Bala Rava alias "Bogi" was born in 1949 in Tridumpur, Goalpara district in Assam to Kaleya Ram Rava and Sagar Bala Rava. She had two elder brothers, both of whom died. Her two surviving siblings are an older sister and a younger brother. Biro's father was an illiterate cultivator of 10 paltry bighas. Biro's mother had studied a little, and little Biro herself studied only up to Class V. She was married in 1964 at the age of 15 to Sandhi Charan Rava, also a cultivator from Barjhora village, who had studied up to Class X. The couple has three boys and a girl.
Biro's eldest son has a mental illness, which was a constant source of trepidation through all the backbreaking housework, and other pressures of daily living. An ojha (traditional healer; exorcist) had declared that her son was "married" to a fairy, destined to die when they would beget a child. Her son is yet alive, a standing pronouncement against the hogwash of traditional and unthinking contumacy. She tried expressing this insight to some women, but in vain.
Biro's first serious foray into working with the women of her community was her fight against the custom of identifying Dainy (witches), trying them in the patriarchal panchayat, and egregiously sentencing them to death. What she saw was the deaths of thousands of innocents, the supremacy of kangaroo courts.
At first she campaigned quietly and then strongly against the Dainy system, appealing to all women in the village. Her campaign extended to various meetings of the women's group in the area and the village panchayat; she tried to sensitize the community, citing the absurdist example of her own son, thus motivating people to contravene the reliance on ojhas. The fight was long and hard, but she eventually managed to convince more and more women of the fact that they were merely victims of a calumnious superstition, and that there are no witches who needed to be summarily burnt at the stake or killed in other methods unimaginable.
Since 1999, Biro has fought her battle against the Dainy system in close collaboration with the Assam Mahila Samata Society (AMSS). It was that year that she had come into contact with an AMSS functionary, and expressed her interest in associating with the organization. In October 2000, she attended an AMSS meeting and was impressed by their philosophy.
With the AMSS, she organized several panchayat-level meetings where she spoke forcefully against witch-hunting. The result of this has been that since 2001, not a single witch-hunt has occurred. They managed to save the lives of six women who had been condemned as Dainy. That year, the community took a collective decision not to torture or kill women in the superstitious belief that they were witches.
The meeting, organized by AMSS in October 2000, was attended by 25 Mahila Samiti (village-level women's body) members: the issue of superstition, as well as traditional beliefs and their impact on women's lives, was discussed threadbare. Biro described her own experience with the ojha, and sought collective action against traditional anti-women shibboleths. This led to a resolution against witch-hunts. After that, this collective appealed to the deputy commissioner, Goalpara, to join in this collective forum against the Dainy system.
The Dainy issue snowballed. Then it became time to move on to other equally urgent social concerns. This movement led to the formation in 2003 of the Borjhara Tobarani Mahila Samata Sangha. Biro had a crucial role to play in this mobilization, visiting women in their homes, meeting them in small groups, discussing the problems they faced in their daily lives.
As the Mahila Samata Sangha began expanding its activities, and the women gained in dedication and confidence, the men also began to show an interest, if belated: they began attending Mahila Sangha meetings. At times, the Sangha took on the impetus and invited men to their meetings to discuss issues such as the education of children and the pervasive liquor problem.
This process also led to her working with other women to confront other problems such as alcohol, environmental issues, or, for example, the need to construct a hut in which to conduct the Sangha's activities. The AMSS has always stressed on personal rational assessment while facilitating women's groups meetings. Biro was always brimful of questions at these meetings, asking for clarifications on a range of issues. Through her own analyses and deductions, as she came to realize that environmental degradation was a serious problem, she began to raise awareness on the issue. The women banded together - today liquor is history, and each tree-felling carries a stiff fine. Behind it all has been her drive to educate.
Biro's compelling contribution is her mobilization of women. When she began her work, women did not participate - and were not interested in - village-level affairs. There was no security for those who were brash enough to volunteer. The village itself was backward: there was no road communication, no government grants to improve facilities.
Biro's perseverance, though, has inspired the women of neighboring villages into forming Sanghas. There has been a considerable drop in the number of Dainy deaths. Many neighboring villages have not only prohibited the sale of country liquor, they have gone a step forward and protest against police or army atrocities, and come forward to participate in community development work.
Biro Bala Rava is an extraordinary woman - fighting medieval forces with the modern weaponry of reason and ratiocination, an inspiration to others more literate than her.
The first foray of Biro Bala Rava into working with her community's women was her confrontation with the custom of identifying dainy (witches), trying them in the patriarchal panchayat (village council), and sentencing them to death. She campaigned strongly against the dainy system-citing the incident where an ojha (exorcist) had declared that her mentally disturbed son would die because he was married to a fairy-in close collaboration with the Assam Mahila Samata Society. The fight was long and hard, but eventually she managed to convince more and more women that they were victims of vested-interest superstition. In 2001, the community took a collective decision not to torture or kill women "witches". This process also led to her working with other women in her village to confront problems such as alcohol and environmental issues-even, for instance, that they needed to construct a hut in which to conduct the activities of the women's group: Borjhara Tobarani Mahila Samata Sangha. Today, liquor is history, and for each tree felled, a hard-nosed fine is levied. Biro also motivated the community about the advantages of education.
Biro's perseverance has inspired neighboring villages as well, where the women have also formed sanghas (congregations). There has been a considerable drop in the number of dainy deaths in the area. Many neighboring villages have stopped selling country liquor. They also protest against police or army atrocities, and come forward to participate in community development works.
Biro is an extraordinary woman-fighting medieval battles with modern weaponry, an inspiration to others more literate than herself.
The new millennium has seen an increase in hunting "witches" in India. Black magic has little to do with it-inheritance and superstition do. The victims are often women from Dalit or tribal communities: killing them is a tradition-sanctioned way of stripping them of property and ideology.
Borjhara Tobarani Mahila Samata Sangha
South Asia | India