Meet Birubala Rabha, the septuagenarian crusader against witch-hunting in Assam

The 72-year-old, ostracised and branded a witch, devoted her life, and, through her organisation Mission Birubala, has been behind the state’s law to check the practice

Sometime in 2010, Birubala Rabha thought she was going to die. Afloat the Brahmaputra, with a film crew who was interviewing her, the wooden boat suddenly capsized, throwing overboard the camera, a crew member and Rabha, 61 at the time. Gasping for breath, she somehow managed to swim to safety. “The water was very deep and I told myself, ‘Okay, today is the day I am going to die’,” Rabha chuckles at the memory more than a decade later. “But then again, I have never been afraid of death. And that is probably why I managed to live,” she adds.

It is this fortitude that has guided Rabha, Assam’s plucky crusader against witch-hunting, through a remarkable life. A life that was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri, last week. “I think this one is more special than the others,” Rabha says, at her home in Goalpara district, lined with mementos of different shapes and sizes. “I’m getting double the phone calls I usually do. But I am telling them, awards are well and good, but the point is for humans to help other humans, for us to be brave and unafraid.”

Just like Rabha has been through her 72 years of life. She wasn’t afraid when she travelled to a village in Meghalaya, in the dead of night, responding to a call of a woman accused of being a “daini” or witch by her neighbours, she wasn’t afraid when a mob surrounded her with daos (a flat-blade sword) and sticks, threatening to beat her up at the entrance of the village, and she wasn’t afraid when in 2000, in a public village meeting held to decide the fate of five women who were branded witches near Lakhipur in Assam, she stood up before hundreds and boldly announced: “There are no witches, witchcraft does not exist.”

The very next day, hundreds of villagers surrounded her house, to compel Rabha to sign a disclaimer that she was wrong to say what she did, and that, in fact, dainis do exist. But Rabha remained resolute, refusing to sign the document, and thus began a life devoted to fighting the malaise of witch-hunting in the state. “After that incident, they ostracised me and branded me a witch too, but instead, I used the time to work towards eradicating the practice,” she says. Since Rabha was already an active member of her village’s local Mahila Samiti (women’s self-help group) fighting social evils like alcoholism and domestic violence, her new avatar as a voice against witch-hunting came to her all too naturally.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in January 2021. Full article here.