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26 held for garden witch-hunt

Dima Tea Estate (Alipurduar), July 15: Twenty-six people have been arrested from here in the past 48 hours for alleged involvement in the lynching of a woman worker.

Shanti Kharia, 45, was tied to a pole and beaten to death on Friday night on charges of practising witchcraft. The incident took place in the No. 8 line of the garden, located under Kalchini police station, 34km from Alipurduar town.

The mob had also severely beaten up Tulshi Oraon, another resident of the area, after Shanti allegedly singled him out as an evil spirit. Tulshi is admitted to the Alipurduar subdivisional hospital with a serious head injury.

Trouble started about two months ago when Punam Kharia, a resident of the area, started having fits of depression. According to her sister Shibri, the 35-year-old unmarried woman would experience sudden bouts of rage and start throwing things.

“On Friday night Punam’s condition became serious. She started shivering and her body turned cold. She started muttering that Shanti would kill her,” Shibri said this morning. “On hearing this, Gurbind, our nephew, along with his friends started beating Shanti. In our community we believe that witches are the root of all evil and it was necessary to do away with her. I have brought Punam to my house to save her.”

Shanti was dragged out of her home around 9pm, brought to Punam’s house and tied to a pole. Gurbind and her friends then beat her indiscriminately. After some time she allegedly named Tulshi as another witch. The mob then meted the same treatment to Tulshi.

Tulshi’s 18-year-old daughter Anjali and son Sania tried to save their father but were injured in the process. Anjali then informed officers at the Kalchini police station who rushed to the spot and rescued Tulshi. Shanti, however, had already died. Tulshi was first taken to the Latabari health centre, from where he was shifted to Alipurduar. Soon after, Anjali lodged a police complaint naming 21 men and 5 women who were involved in the lynching.

Seventeen men were arrested on the same night, while five women and four more men were nabbed today. All the accused have been produced in court and have been remanded in judicial custody for two weeks.

With Shanti’s husband long dead, her children — Noel, Sangeeta and Rabin — are orphans living in fear of persecution. The teenagers are currently staying with their uncle and aunt, both of whom are permanent workers of the garden.

“On Friday night, Sangeeta and I had gone to our neighbour’s house to watch TV. Rabin was away visiting my uncle’s place. When the news reached us we rushed to the place but the mob beat us and drove us away. Out of fear we returned home and locked the door from inside. We heard our mother’s cries for help till late in the night but could not do anything,” said 16-year-old Noel, trauma writ large on his face. “We fear that once the accused are released, they will kill us too.”

Alipurduar subdivisional police officer Mitesh Jain promised to look into the children’s security.

“We have arrested all the 26 accused. We are keeping a close watch on the area and the dead body has been sent for post-mortem. Shanti’s children need not worry.”

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