By Bhaskar Phukan
One lesson that I have learned from all these years of working as a civil servant in the field is that beneath the quiet and humdrum flow of life in our society thrives a subculture of irrational beliefs and superstitions. Often, at the slightest provocation, it comes to surface, making otherwise normal people behave like medieval inquisitors or credulous fools.
From my very first posting at Mushalpur in the undivided Nalbari district, I saw how irrationally people reacted to any unusual phenomenon. In the winter of 1993, something quite strange happened in a remote village called Bhawanipur B Block besides the Mora Pagladia, a tributary of the Pagladia River. Things, mostly inanimate objects, started catching fire on their own before the eyes of the bewildered village folk. Houses, barns, hay stacks or even smaller objects like umbrellas would burn with bluish flames for no apparent reason at all. There was constant pandemonium in the village as the panic stricken residents ran helter-skelter to douse the fires that occurred at frequent intervals all over the village, sometimes at different places at the same time, through day and night.
Soon the news about the mysterious fires in the village spread through the district. The local newspapers also reported about the incident. One afternoon, the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police decided to visit the village and see for themselves the strange phenomenon. The officer in charge of the local police station and I accompanied them to the village. The entire village was waiting for us with their strange tale of woe.
Instances of spontaneous combustion of objects near marshy lands due to formation of methane gas are not unusual as any student of chemistry knows. The fires in the village were probably the outcome of such formation. But the villagers had no knowledge of such chemistry lessons. Soon, a myth emerged in the village on the cause of the mysterious fires. People believed that the fires were the handiwork of spirits of persons who had died in the area during the riots of 1983. All these years, the spirits had remained dormant, causing no harm to anyone but for some reason now they were angry with the villagers and as retribution caused the fires. As we walked down the lane that cut across the village, we saw burnt remains of objects in front of most of the houses. Few appeared to be spared from the wrath of the spirits. The Deputy Commissioner called the local gaon burrah –the village headman–and directed him to make an inventory of the loss suffered by the villagers and hand it to me. He assured the villagers about granting them some financial assistance to cover their loss. The gaon burrah thanked the Deputy Commissioner for his kindness and on behalf of the villagers made a representation. He explained to the Deputy Commissioner that since the villagers believed that the fires had been caused by spirits of dead men, they decided to propitiate them through proper rituals. A Nepali tantrik had been engaged by the villagers for the purpose. The tantrik required a few objects for the rituals. The villagers would be grateful if the Deputy Commissioner could provide them the required objects for the rituals. The gaon burrah handed a list to the Deputy Commissioner citing the items with “one black goat” taking pride of place on the top. The Deputy Commissioner directed the officer in charge of the local police station to make arrangement for the objects and hand them to the tantrik for his rituals.
Later I asked the Deputy Commissioner whether providing the objects required for the rituals would be construed as involvement of the administration in superstitious practices and send a wrong signal. The senior bureaucrat laughed out aloud and quipped, “Who said we are involved? The villagers sought our help and it was given. Even if we had refused, they would in any case go ahead with the rituals. You submit a report on the events in the village. I will send it to the Geology and Mining Department for their advice. This is our formal response. But sometimes we have to examine all available options before taking a decision.”
A fortnight later the gaon burrah came to my office. He informed me of the successful performance of therituals by the tantrik
“Have the fires stopped?” I asked.
“After the rituals, the fires continued for two or maybe three days and then stopped completely. The villagers are much relieved now”
Much to my consternation, I could not even for a minute make the gaon burrah or any of the villagers look at the mysterious fires in the village as a natural phenomenon. They could not think beyond the spiteful spirits. A journalist friend from that area who had reported on the incidents visited the village recently. He told me that even now almost two decades later the villagers still regarded the fires as the work of spirits.
Another incident from my Mushalpur days makes my hair stand up even today. One day, the officer in-charge of the local police outpost reported that an old lady, grandmother of a surrendered Bodo militant had been missing from her home for several days. A few days later, the police officer informed me that something unusual had been found in the missing lady’s backyard. I rushed to the spot at once. There was a gathering in front of the woman’s hut. The surrendered militant squatted on the floor looking dazed. The police officer took me to the backyard and there in a small clearing, I saw what first appeared to me like a tuft of dry grass sprouting from the soil. On closer inspection, I discovered that it was human hair. The old woman had been murdered and buried in her own backyard. As the body was disinterred in my presence, the surrendered militant could not control himself. He wept like a child at the sight of his dead grandmother. Later it was revealed that the old woman had been killed by her neighbors on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.
However, not all such incidents are open and shut cases of irrational beliefs. Instances of someone being branded as a witch or daini by unscrupulous persons out of personal enmity or even to settle scores in a property dispute are commonplace. Taking advantage of the gullibility of village folk, they spread the canard that the person is dabbling with witchcraft or black magic. Such rumours spread fast and gain ready acceptance in rural society. Overnight, people otherwise peaceful and gentle turn into cruel and intolerant vigilantes.
Recalling another incident, just a few days into my posting at Margherita subdivision in October 2010, I and my junior colleague, Partha Bairagi, went to a remote village called Ratani Pathar under Pengeri Police Station near the Assam- Arunachal border to meet a woman, a poor widow with two minor sons, who had been kidnapped and tortured by the followers of a dubious religious leader called Ma. Somehow the woman escaped from the clutches of her tormentors and lived to share her ordeal with us.
What followed was one of the most ludicrous stories I have ever come across. Ma who traveled from place to place along the border had set up camp at a place not far from Ratani Pathar. Everyday a large number of people, mostly simple, illiterate village folk of the area came to Ma, seeking her blessings for their problems. One such person was a relative of the woman from Ratani Pathar. The relative took along her daughter who was suffering from a chronic ailment. Ma asked this relative if she knew anyone from their family who bore a grudge against the child. The relative thought for a while and blurted out the name of the woman from Ratani Pathar. Ma instructed her minions to bring the woman before her. The next morning, a group of her followers descended on Ratani Pathar and forcibly brought the widow to the camp. Ma interrogated her on the child. The woman was in a complete daze. She had no idea what was happening or why she was brought there. Before she could say anything, Ma pronounced her guilty. She was held responsible for the child’s ailment and ordered her to be locked inside a bamboo cage at a corner of the camp. Throughout the day, Ma’s men kicked and pummeled the woman inside the cage in order to exorcise the evil inside her. This continued for a few days.
“I was treated like a pig inside that cage. The more I protested, the more they beat me. So I decided to remain silent and bear the pain,” the woman told us between sobs.
“Didn’t someone report to the police”? I said.
The police officer from Pengeri police station accompanying us interjected, “The camp falls within Arunachal Pradesh. We came to know of the incident much later. By that time she has already returned on her own.”
“How did you return?” I asked the woman.
“As soon as my family members heard about my plight, they approached Ma. Even the child’s mother who had named me went along to plead for me,” she said.
“Why did she name you in the first place?” I said.
“When Ma asked her to name someone who didn’t like her daughter, she couldn’t think of anyone. Ma’s followers kept prodding her to name someone. Finally, she uttered my name out of fright. She didn’t know that they would come after me and take me to their camp”
“Did Ma let you go after your family approached her?” I said.
“No, she wouldn’t let me go till they cured me of all evil. One of my relatives decided to talk with a member of Ma’s camp, acquainted with him. A deal was struck to release me. At first the member demanded Rs 5000 to free me. Later it was brought down to Rs 2000. We paid the amount and I was allowed to go,” she said.
“Did Ma know about the deal?” I asked.
“It was done with her consent. The member also gave us this receipt”, she said, showing me a printed money receipt of the deal.
As we returned from her hut, I requested the police officer to keep an eye on the woman and to take up with his Arunachal Pradesh counterpart on Ma’s activities. The officer told us that they had already spoken to the police across the border on the matter and assured us of the woman’s safety.
Just as people could brand someone as a daini or witch, they could also easily bestow someone with divine qualities, elevating him to the rank of a living God.
One such story of an ordinary boy from a small village called Shilhako in Baghora, Morigaon district fortuitously transformed into a “maha manav” makes an interesting case study. Early one morning in May 2001, I and a colleague were returning from Guwahati in a convoy of vehicles with printed ballot papers from the Government Press for the forthcoming Assembly elections. At that time, I was posted as Circle Officer of Bhuragaon Revenue Circle under Morigaon district. Justas we were nearing Morigaon, we noticed a long line of people at a place called Baghora. The line about one km long originated from a dirt track and wound its way up into the main road. Both my colleague and I were surprised to see so many people early in the morning at that nondescript place. Our driver noticing our curiosity said, “They are there for Tinku Deka’s Bishnu medicine.”
“Tinku Deka! Who is he?” I asked in sheer ignorance. My colleague was equally in the dark about the name.
“He is a twelve years old kid whom Lord Bishnu appeared in a dream and gave the secret of a herbal medicine that could cure cancer and other serious ailments. People from all over Assam come here for the medicine,” the driver explained. Both my colleague and I were amazed.
After the elections were over, newspapers picked up the story of the “wonder boy” and his “miraculous medicine” and overnight Tinku Deka became a sensation. It was now his turn for his moments of glory. The queue from his humble abode stretched further ahead, reaching almost five kilometres up the main road. People from as far as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh came for the Bishnu Medicine. As the size of the crowd grew larger by the day, the local committee which oversaw all arrangements of Tinku Deka’s darshan sought support of the district administration. Accordingly, the Deputy Commissioner called a meeting of the administration with the committee members. The Superintendent of Police was also invited. The committee members brought along Tinku Deka for the meeting. It was the first time most of us saw the “wonder boy”. He looked like any other kid of his age. At the meeting, he sat between the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police and was nonchalant about the discussion. The Deputy Commissioner assured the committee of all support from the administration. A senior magistrate was entrusted with overall charge of matters and a duty rooster was prepared allotting an executive magistrate at the village every day. Adequate police personnel would be on duty at the area round the clock.
The sleepy village of Shilhako woke up to a new life. On both sides of the road leading to Tinku Deka’s house, makeshift tea stalls using bamboo poles and bedcovers were put up by residents, out to make a quick buck from the large gathering every day.
The air around the village was redolent with the strains of borgeets and bhajans played from loudspeakers. A sense of piety spread forth from the never ending line of people patiently moving ahead for their benediction. It was something I have never seen in my life. The medicine which was claimed to be effective for many diseases, including cancer consisted of a twig or branch of a particular species of tree cut into standard size and touched by Tinku Deka . The patient was required to keep the medicine in contact with his waist while sleeping for fifteen days. There were many claims by persons using the medicine of remarkable recovery from their diseases. Pamphlets were circulated extolling the miraculous virtues of Bishnu Medicine. But after about two months, Tinku Deka’s magic seemed to wear off. The benefits of Bishnu Medicine were questioned by a growing number of sceptics. Most of the persons who used the medicine found no change in their condition. Even those who had claimed recovery later retracted their statements saying they had only felt well for sometime without any real improvement in their condition. The boy’s popularity waned. The five km long line of people was reduced to a trickle. The Tinku Deka phenomenon faded out as fast as it had arisen.
The village of Shilhako was once again forgotten, consigned to obscurity.Tinku Deka’s high season ended. He had his fifteen minutes of fame. He went back to school. Today, more than ten years later, Tinku Deka has successfully completed his graduation from Morigaon College. He lives an ordinary life shorn of the halo of a living God. But even now he has not been able to break away completely from his past. An occasional visitor or two still come to him for the Bishnu Medicine and he gladly obliges them.