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Karbi Anglong lynching: Can Assam kill rumours with 'Sanskar'?

Karbi Anglong is among the districts with highest number of child trafficking cases in the state. This is a fact, not a myth.

 |  7-minute read |   13-06-2018
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In those countless "xadhu kotha" (stories with a moral) told to Assamese children over generations, the "Xopadhora" — the man who steals children — would often appear out of the blue. Mothers, telling the story, would take a pause to warn their young ones not to loiter around, because the Xopadhora was for real and would take them away — far, far away.

But no one had seen a Xopadhora — how he looked, what he wore, how would he catch/trap the children.

So, every time, in every story, the  Xopadhoras would appear to be different — sometimes, he carried a bosta (jute bag) under his arms, on other occasions, his face covered, surreptitiously walking into the courtyard, gagging their mouth and stealing children.

At least that's how my mother described him to me.

But since we used to live in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh and would come down to Assam only during summer holidays, in my young mind, the fear of the Xopadhora existed only till the time I was at my grandfather's place. I knew the Xopadhora lived amid the Assamese people, he wouldn't leave the plains of Brahmaputra and travel all the way up to Arunachal Pradesh.

Strangely, while almost everything from my childhood has changed, one thing refuses to leave the land of Assam. The Xopadhora never left Assam — and people still fear him.

690-s_061118063411_0_061318062846.jpgAbhijeet Nath (left) and Nilotpal Das. The two men were recently lynched on fears of their being kidnappers

The lynching of two men in Assam's Karbi Anglong district has brought back the Xopadhora amid us.

Two young men from Guwahati — Abhijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das — were lynched in Dokmoka in West Karbi Anglong district of Assam. A furious mob, some of them drunk, "mistook" the young men to be Xopadhoras ("phankodongs" in Karbi).

Apparently, rumours were doing the rounds that "Bihari child-lifters" were on the prowl and stealing children from the area. Most people in the area had come to know about the abductors through Facebook, from where the "warning" spread like wildfire. The villagers were warned to be vigilant. Just like the folk tales, here too, people had heard various things about the child-lifters, their physical appearances — men dressed as women, men with long hair, men who could easily give the slip — pisol manuh ("slippery men"). Later, while piecing together the crime, the police and the public deduced that perhaps the fact that one of the young men, Nilotpal, sported dreadlocks also played a role in giving him the "appearance" of a pisol manuh.

The lynching of the two men and the protests in the aftermath have opened the floodgates of soul-searching — but sadly to end up with quick fixes.

In the wake of widespread protests and revenge attacks against the lynchings, the Assam government has announced the introduction of an awareness programme — Sanskar — in all development blocks and panchayats in the state to spread awareness and fight superstitions and ignorance.

How do you kill a rumour?

While it's understandable that the government would want a quick solution to such violent crimes as a result of rumour-spreading and superstition, the problem is not with such awareness programmes, but the lack of understanding that goes behind dishing out such readymade schemes.

The Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government's choice of name — Sanskar — itself gives away the not-so-surprise ending. You cannot expect to win a fight against myth and superstition with sanskar ("customs and traditions"). Notwithstanding the misleading name (for reasons only the government can answer), the bigger problem here is that the government thinks it's only superstition that's giving rise to killings in the name of witch-hunting and other such beliefs.

cm_061318062959.jpg'Sanskar' is the answer: Assam chief minister Sarbandanda Sonowal

But, in the Karbi Anglong case, there is clearly a modern plot to the ancient myth of "Xopadhora".

For one, the rumours started to spread on social media — high-tech life-changing socialising tools of WhatsApp and Facebook.

Secondly, people easily fell for the rumours, because the fears of children going missing are not unfounded. Assam reportedly has one of the highest number of child trafficking cases.

In 2015, the state recorded the highest number of human trafficking cases across the country with 1,494 cases registered. According to data for 2015, released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2016, the state also has the highest number of child trafficking — 1,317 cases, which account for 38 per cent of the national figure.

The same records reveal that Karbi Anglong accounts for one of the highest number of cases for child trafficking, after Sonitpur and Udalgairi districts in Assam.

The figures clearly point out why it's easy to spread — and believe — rumours about child abductions in these areas. The Xopadhora may be a myth, but the trafficking of children is real and so are the fears. And with the deluge of WhatApp forwards and Facebook posts, it is easy to bring the monster to life. It doesn't need rocket science to crack the mystery behind such rumours. Similarly, when it comes to witch-hunting, numerous news and investigative reports have pointed out the underlying reason behind such killings and attacks.

According to Birubala Rabha, who has been crusading against witch-hunting after a village quack almost killed her son in 1996, witch-hunting often has more to do with family and property disputes under the veneer of superstition.

“We have been fighting for a strict law to discourage witch-hunting, which often has to do more with family and property disputes under the veneer of superstition. This Act should have come earlier, but it is better late than never,” the Hindustan Times quoted her as saying in this report.

While there is no denying that it becomes easier to spread a rumour among people who still believe in and practice superstitious rituals, the root of the menace lies in more real problems — shrinking land, lack of resources, equal opportunities, distribution of public resources, percolation of government schemes and subsidies, and most importantly, unemployment.

The Assam government needs to first ask itself these simple questions — Why are more and more children being trafficked? Could poverty and unemployment be a reason? What about age-old ethnic divides and conflicts leading to lynchings?  

(In 2013, 12-year-old Jhankar Saikia was lynched in the middle of the road in Diphu (capital of Karbi Anglong) over Rs 10. Jhankar was the son of an advocate. He was thrashed by auto drivers after a heated argument over a rickshaw fare. There was nothing superstitious about his killing, no myth.)

Shouldn't there be more introspection about the law and order situation in the state? Apparently, those who have watched the gruesome video of the Karbi Anglong lynching are also raising questions about police lapses after a "policeman" was seen recording video clips of the incident.

Also, if rumours were being spread on social media for sometime now, why did the police not crack down upon these earlier?

How does the government plan to handle the deteriotating law and order siutation in the state, fight unemployment or child trafficking with "Sanskar"?  

The fact of the matter is, superstition is just a part of the problem — the main problem here is a shockingly lackadaisical government, looking to hide its lack of will or real purpose behind quick-fix, nice sounding solutions.

Also read: Lynching of Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath: Why the Assamese is ready to kill his own

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Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

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