Assam: Ban 'magical healing'—but elevate AYUSH?

On 10 February, the state passed a bill to ban the "evil practice" of magical healing. Why single out this one tradition?

Display of seaweed and coral used in healing, at the Mayong Museum, Guwahati (photo: screengrab from a video by @MandyMisra/YouTube)
Display of seaweed and coral used in healing, at the Mayong Museum, Guwahati (photo: screengrab from a video by @MandyMisra/YouTube)

Manidipa Mandal

The Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government in Assam gave its nod to a bill prohibiting "magical healing" , proposing strong punitive action against the "healers", on Saturday, 10 February—the Assam Healing (Prevention of Evil) Practices Bill, 2024.

The proposed bill seeks to "prohibit and eliminate practices of magical healing in the name of treatment of some congenital diseases such as deafness, dumbness, blindness, physical deformity and autism".

While supporters of the neurodiversity movement baulk at autism being considered a "congenital disease", there are other interesting aspects to the legislation.

"It will prohibit such healing sessions completely and provide strong punitive action against 'healers' extorting the poor and downtrodden people in the name of treatment," the chief minister wrote on X.

At the same cabinet meeting, Sarma said the 10 cities and towns had been selected for a dedicated sustainable development programme and proposed to bring in reforms in the state municipal cadres.

For sustainable urban development, a concept of similar development for the 10 places (doh shaher, ek rupayan) will be introduced, it was reported, with the implementation to be guided by a state-level committee. Key components include solid waste management, clean and potable water supply, traffic management, urban planning and manpower rationalisation and capacity building.

The cabinet also approved a Wildlife Safari and Rescue Centre at Namdang Reserved Forest under the Dibrugarh Forest Division—a tourism draw, it was hoped. Incidentally, 'black magic' and 'witchcraft' have long been of niche tourism appeal for Assam—particularly centred on Mayong village.

It wasn't long ago—in fact, barely a year ago—that Ranjeet Kumar Dass, minister of panchayat and rural development, food and civil supplies, and consumer affairs, was eulogising the Mayong tradition of 'black magic' as the "real life Hogwarts in Assam". Tourism brochures have long touted the region, in Morigaon district, as the home of black magic in India.

Now, perhaps, such traditional magical arts are considered too far opposed to sanatan practices?

Mayong traditions even have their own museum in Guwahati—the image at the top of this article is from a display there.

However, ojhas or bez (traditional magical healers) of Assam—both men and women—are on the one hand sought out by believers even amongst the affluent and educated, and also demonised for their witchcraft, both historically and in contemporary times per academic writing and news reports from the region.

It may also be recalled that in October 2023, the Union minister for AYUSH, Sarbananda Sonowal, had announced a veritable bonanza for Assam: 6 new Ayush hospitals, 100 Ayush dispensaries, 200 Ayush Health & Wellness Centres, per an Economic Times report. Sonowal was in Majuli on 7 October to inaugurate a 50-bed Ayush hospital in Majuli.

Elsewhere in the country, there are faculties of recognised and government-run institutions that teach similar 'traditional arts' to the one the Assamese bill seeks to eradicate, popularly known as jhar-phoonk or jadu-tona in various states. The Banaras Hindu University, for instance, announced in 2019 a Bhoot Vidya certificate course from its Ayurveda faculty. BHU is under the Ministry of Education, being a central institute of higher education

The government's support for AYUSH (standing for Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) has continued to baffle practitioners of modern medicine within the country. Although some doctors continue to 'supplement' their practice with such regimens and prescribe Ayurvedic preparations, many have been out on a limb to argue this simply was not... medicine or science.

Now we have the added conundrum of distinguishing which traditional practices count as evil and magical, versus ancient wisdom. Much of homoeopathy and ayurveda of course could be categorised as 'magical thinking' by scientific thinkers.

Minister in the Rajya Sabha Saket Gokhale of the All-India Trinamool Congress asked in Parliament quite recently on what basis the government continues to offer homeopathy as a legitimate form of treatment at Ayush centres when it has been discredited by science.

Gokhale had called for the government to de-platform homeopathy and not equate it with actual medical practice as far back as 2020. He was apparently alarmed at a scheme allowing homeopaths to prescribe medication. (However, it should be noted that Gokhale did support Ayurveda as being "an established herb-based natural treatment", which possibly many a medical practitioner disagrees with.)

With PTI inputs

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