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Assam: Anti-witch hunting crusader Padma Shri Birubala Rabha dies at 75

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Birubala Rabha

Birubala Rabha (File image)

Guwahati: Padma Shri awardee Birubala Rabha, renowned for her fight against witch hunting, passed away at a hospital here on Monday after a long battle with cancer, doctors said.

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Survived by two sons, a daughter, and other relatives, Rabha, 75, was admitted to the State Cancer Institute of Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) on April 22 due to severe weakness, GMCH superintendent Abhijit Sarma said.

"She has been a patient of advanced stage carcinoma oesophagus since 2021 and was undergoing treatment at our hospital. She was put on a metallic stent because of difficulty in swallowing six month ago," he added.

As Rabha's condition deteriorated, she was admitted to the hospital last month and was shifted to ICU on May 4, followed by mechanical ventilator support on Sunday as she developed respiratory distress, Sarma said.

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"After all possible intensive care, she breathed her last at 9:23 am due to multi-organ failure," he added.

Rabha, whose son and brother were victims of witch hunting, had fearlessly led her NGO 'Mission Birubala' amidst extreme hostility in remote areas. Despite facing numerous attempts on her life by superstitious villagers branding her a witch, she continued her courageous work.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma expressed his deep condolences over the passing away of the social activist.

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"I am deeply distressed to learn about the passing away of Padma Shri Smt Birubala Rabha. Through her untiring efforts to end social evils she illuminated the paths of scores of women with hope and confidence.

"Rising through a challenging life, she epitomised courage against all odds. Assam will forever remain grateful for her leadership in serving society," he posted on X.

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Representing the Assam government, Environment and Forest Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary reached the GMCH and offered his condolences.

"It is a big loss to the state and the country. We will never get another person like Birubala Rabha, who defied all odds and stood up for humanity," he added.

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Her mortal remains will be taken to her home in Goalpara district and the last rites will be performed with full state honours, Patowary said.

Born at remote Thakurvila village in Goalpara in 1949, she had a struggling childhood. Her father died when she was six, forcing her to drop out of school after class 5 and help her mother run the household. Rabha was just 15 years old when she was married to a farmer with whom she had three children.

Rabha was instrumental in enactment of the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2015, which made every offence related to witch hunting as cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable, making provisions for imprisonment up to seven years along with a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh for identifying and calling a person witch.

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Her struggle against the menace began when her son was branded a 'witch' and diagnosed to die within three days because he was mentally not sound. Her family was isolated for three years after she started raising her voice against witch hunting.

Rabha formed 'Mission Birubala' in 2012 to create awareness among people against the social evil and all forms of superstitious beliefs, besides providing rehabilitation to the victims of witch hunting menace. The organisation has saved lives of 55 victims so far in Majuli, Kokrajhar, Goalpara and Tinsukia districts.

Recognising her work to protect lives in rural India, she was conferred with the fourth highest civilian award of the country 'Padma Shri' in 2021.

Under the project '1,000 Women', she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 by The Swiss Peace, Switzerland. She received Honorary Doctorate from Gauhati University, besides being recognised with innumerable awards by various organisations.

Condolence messages have started pouring in from different quarters, hailing Rabha as a symbol of crusader against superstition and upholder of mankind.

Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said Rabha Baideo (elder sister) battled against the superstitions and prejudices entrenched in the society, exemplifying the strength of women through unwavering determination and courage.

"Inspired by her work, we shall always remain motivated to persistently serve the community, irrespective of challenges. The news of Baideo's passing fills my heart with deep sorrow. Her departure leaves an irreplaceable void in Assam's social fabric," he added.

Assam Jatiya Parishad President Lurinjyoti Gogoi also said Rabha's contribution will always be remembered and her ideals will be a guide for every generation to come.

Condoling her death, Assam Congress president Bhupen Kumar Borah said Rabha's demise is an irreparable loss to Assamese society.

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