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Impotency Myth, Witch-hunting, Human Sacrifice: Encephalitis is Just One of Many Battles Assam is Fighting

It is suspected that many who lost their lives to Japanese Encephalitis in Assam did not participate in the vaccination drive last year owing to a superstition that it would affect their potency.

Pranjal Baruah | CNN-News18

Updated:July 13, 2019, 1:54 PM IST
Impotency Myth, Witch-hunting, Human Sacrifice: Encephalitis is Just One of Many Battles Assam is Fighting
Illustration by Mir Suhail/News18

Guwahati: In Assam, which records a high number of deaths due to Japanese Encephalitis (JE) every year, it is age-old superstitions, misbeliefs and lack of awareness attached to the disease that lead to more damage. Not Just JE, the controversial rituals of human sacrifice and witch hunting —practiced by a large section in the state —are also posing a major challenge for the state government.

Every year, when the state health department runs its JE vaccination drives across the state, an existing misbelief of ‘turning infertile’ by the vaccination creates a major hindrance in the success of the drive. It is suspected that many who lost their lives to the deadly disease did not participate in the vaccination process last year owing to fear that it would affect their potency. Usually, vaccination drives are carried out during the pre-monsoon months.

“Apart from the common fear of injections, many believe that vaccine would make them impotent. In other instances, health department officials found people saying no to the vaccine suspecting that it would lead to fatal illness. Such superstitions have turned out to be a major barrier in the success,”Dr BC Bhagobati, state surveillance officer, Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme of Assam, told News18,

According to sources in the health department, these superstitions prevail mostly in minority-dominated areas of lower Assam and several pockets of tea belt areas. Ignorance and lack of proper awareness, and popularisation of the immunisation programme were found to be adding to the woes. This year alone, over 65 people have died due to Japanese Encephalitis in the state.

The National Health Mission (NHM) officials said that people from rural areas are not only keeping themselves away from the vaccination drives but are also not taking effective measures after being detected with the disease. “If patients are brought directly to the doctor at the earliest, then chances of saving their lives from JE are high. But the villagers prefer going to quacks, which results in high death toll,” an NHM official said.

“Since pigs and wild birds are carriers of the JE virus, spread by Aedes mosquitoes during the monsoon season, precautionary measures can easily prevent the spread of the disease. These mosquitoes breed mainly in rice fields and large water bodies rich in aquatic vegetation,” the official added.

What’s more alarming is that these superstitions are not restricted only to the educationally backward sections in Assam. In the recent incident of suspected human sacrifice, the accused were all educated.

Jadab Saharia, whose family was caught performing the bizarre rituals, is a science teacher. His 28-year-old son Pulakesh, who died because of injuries suffered in police firing, was a computer application graduate.

“On July 6, Pulakesh allegedly forced his family to take part in a black magic ritual. Stripped naked, the family members set their vehicles on fire and are suspected to have tried to sacrifice a three-year-old. The family later told police that they performed the rituals under the guidance of a self-styled godman to bring peace and prosperity to the family. It’s shocking to see such educated people involved in superstitious activities,” said superintendent of police, Udalguri.

Calling the incident “unfortunate”, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal also warned people against believing in rumours and superstitions. “People of the state should remain alert to deal with any kind of untoward situation that may occur due to superstition,” he said.

To fight against prevailing superstitious beliefs, Assam government had launched its highly ambitious program ‘Sanskar’ in 2018, following the lynching of two Guwahati youths -- Abhijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das -- who were beaten to death by a mob over a superstition.

The Assam Science Technology and Environment Council is the nodal agency for the programme encompassing all district administrations, district police and all concerned government departments, besides local bodies, mahila samiti, voluntary organisations, leading citizens, academicians, MPs and MLAs from ruling and opposition parties.

Taking up the matter on priority, Assam Police have made several attempts of spreading awareness to counter superstitions and rumour mongering.

Assam police director general Kuladhar Saikia, who himself is a crusader against the age-old practice of witch hunting, has emphasised on the need for community involvement in eradicating such superstitions. “The involvement of the entire community is vital because in many cases the villagers don’t report such incidents to the police due to fear of being ostracised for revolting against traditional beliefs,” said Saikia, who had initiated state police’s ‘Project Prahari’ to counter the witch-hunting tradition in 2001.

Witch hunting, a primitive ritual performed for hundreds of years by several tribal communities in the state, has taken some 193 lives — 114 women and 79 men —who were branded as “witches” and killed between 2001 and 2017. However, in July last year, President Ram Nath Kovind assented to the Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015 to deal with superstitions.

As per the state government figures, at least 21 people were killed due to superstitions and witch-hunting incidents in the last two years.

However, the government’s efforts have also been questioned. Many believe that the state government should come up with a list of all superstitions, conduct studies and involve the public and influential people to create a mass movement.

Kamalesh Gupta, general secretary of Ellora Vigyan Mancha, a state-based organisation working to spread scientific temper and to fight superstition and blind belief, said, “The superstitions prevailing in the society are deep-rooted and can’t be uprooted overnight. Therefore, the government and all stakeholders should initiate campaigns from at the school level so that young minds can be made free from ill beliefs. In one instance, a state minister had said that ‘diseases like cancer happen due to ‘sins of past life’. Other ministers were also found to have changed their office interiors due to some ‘misbeliefs’.”

The Ellora Vigyan Mancha will observe August 20 as a day against superstitions in the state.

| Edited by: Divya Kapoor
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