Witch hunting | Victims of superstition
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New Delhi: The whitewashed brick house, with a “You Are Welcome” sign and floral patterns painted at the entrance, looks bright enough from the outside. At least it stands out among the four mud houses in the vicinity in Baralagra, a village in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. Peer inside and you find two bare rooms, the floors covered thick with dust, and dead insects and cobwebs hanging from the ceilings.
The house has been empty since September 2009, when an unmarried 37-year-old woman and her 60-year-old mother were killed by a mob of villagers on suspicion that they were daayans, or witches. The mother’s body was discovered with ligature marks on her neck, indicating she had been hanged. The daughter’s body hasn’t been found.
The National Crime Records Bureau says 2,097 murders were committed between 2000 and 2012 where witch hunting was the motive. Out of these, 363 were reported from Jharkhand and this figure does not include the murders in 2000, when Jharkhand was a part of Bihar. The Jharkhand Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) office puts the total number of such murders from 2001 to October 2013 at 414 and cases registered for witchcraft at 2,854.
Apart from Jharkhand, at least 11 other states—Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Bihar—still report cases of witch hunting.
Once practised only by tribal communities, witch hunting is now becoming common among Dalits and other minority communities.
The idea of a witch is common across all the affected states. They are thought to possess an evil eye or mouth, they eat humans, kill cattle, destroy crops, and cause illness.
But witch hunting is not just the result of such superstition. Family disputes over property, land rights of women, and village-level and gender conflicts are some of the other reasons for witch hunts in India, historians say.
“These are women who are unsupported, either because they are single or widows. It is primarily connected to land. It happens with women who are economically well-off or self-sustaining,” says Govind Kelkar, co-author of Gender Relations in Forest Societies in Asia and a former senior consultant with UN Women, South Asia office, New Delhi.
In witch-hunting cases, land becomes an issue because under the customary system, lineage and land passes through the man. Tribal women have only limited rights over land. They can have the right to manage and produce the land and the right to a share of the produce. The second right is a sort of maintenance right that an unmarried daughter has. If the girl decides to remain single, her father gives the land to her to manage it.
At Baralagra, the two victims belonged to a relatively well-off family of four—two daughters, a mother and a son. The husband had died a few years back and the family was primarily run by the two women.
On 22 September 2009, the two left their home early morning to sell hadya, a rice beer made locally in Jharkhand villages.
This village is home to 333 families, living in houses that are close to each other. Of its population of 1,717, 826 are females. In fact, the sex ratio of West Singhbhum, the largest district in Jharkhand, is 1,004 females for every 1,000 men—well above the national average of 933 women. Trudging through Baralagra at any time of the day, more women are seen than men.
“Most of the men migrate to adjoining states for work. And women run the households in these villages,” said Smita Singh, state programme director of the Jharkhand Mahila Samakhya Society, an autonomous organization that helps implement the national programme for women’s empowerment.
The majority of the population in West Singhbhum is tribal. There are 1,149 Scheduled Tribes and 90 Scheduled Castes. Most of the population belongs to Asur, Baiga, Banjara, Binhia, Santhal or Ho tribes. The mother and the daughter belonged to the Ho tribe.
While on their way back home at 7 or 8pm, the daughter said she would be going to a nearby tola (hamlet) to sell the remaining hadya. The mother walked back home alone. The unpaved roads to her village have bicycle tyre marks, the only source of transportation in the interiors.
The mother was oblivious of an ambush at her house. As soon as she stepped into the compound, some men threw a rope on her and strangled her. It took less than a few seconds. She didn’t utter a word or cry, and died on the spot.
“After strangulating her, some of the men squeezed her neck with their hands to ensure she was dead,” says 35-year-old Panmati Laguri, her second daughter (she too was called a witch when she was single, but survived after marrying in the nearby village of Pilka, where the practice of witch hunting is less prevalent).
The mother’s body was dragged for a few kilometres, lifted on the shoulder for the rest, and then dropped under a rock in a nearby jungle, 8km from her house. The decomposed body was found only after two of the accused helped the police trace it.
Nearly an hour later, when the daughter reached home, she saw the group, including eight women and two relatives. She started shouting and crying out, pulling at the sleeves of the men, but they shook her loose. She kept begging someone to help her. “The neighbours shut their doors. Some kept peeping out of their windows,” says Laguri.
The victim’s body was taken to the same jungle, some neighbours told Laguri, and the same day money and some jewellery was stolen from the house. “We had antique gold jewellery and we were doing well financially. Almost Rs.25,000 and all the gold we had was stolen that day,” says Laguri.
A few hours before the double murders, the villagers had held a meeting where they had decided to kill the women, blaming them for the deaths of an elderly man, a young man and two cows.
Neighbours living just a few metres from the victims’ house either say they were not present that day or that they have just recently moved to the place. But one, Maniyar Buria, 30, says the victims were daayans who ate (killed) his cow.
“I saw them. They were daayans. They used to eat animals and humans,” says Buria.
A mile from the victims’ house, another man says it’s easy to spot a witch. “You can see it in their eyes. They have different eyes.”
Laguri filed a case after her mother’s body was found on 11 October.
“Even after the two were killed, people have died in the village. If they were responsible for the deaths, why did cattle and people die after the two were killed?” says Laguri, who speaks with pauses like a person listening to someone whispering in the ears and then answering.
Laguri has an acute neurological condition because of which her legs are bent at the knee and cannot move. She has been bedridden for more than a month. Several accused still visit her asking her to reach a compromise—forgive and forget. She says she doesn’t even want to look at them. “When I look at them, I am reminded of what happened that day.”
Laguri went to the village head, the munda, who said he knew nothing about the incident. Her uncle who lived close by said he was threatened that he too would be branded as a witch if he tried to help the family in any way.
“Almost everyone in the village except the prospective victims knew that this (murder) was going to happen,” says Kalicharan Biruva, who is the grami munda, the village head of Laguri’s village.
A witch is identified by different techniques in different areas. The person in whose family someone dies, or whose cattle or crops have perished, employs an ojha or a witch doctor to find the witch. According to the power hierarchy among tribals in these villages, there are three leaders—a political leader called munda, a religious leader called devri and an ojha.
An ojha learns and uses his powers to counter the powers of the daayan. Witches are supposed to be practitioners of black magic, learnt through mantras (spells) and songs, while what an ojha does is white magic. Apparently the witches are trained at nights in a forest or in an open plain. In tribal folklore, the new moon nights are traditionally associated with witches’ spells and incantations.
Laguri doesn’t know why her family was targeted, but she is sure that witches don’t exist. “Before the death of my mother and sister, seven other women were murdered in the village. But I don’t know how and why we were the ones branded as witches that time,” says Laguri.
During the identification, after usual incantations, the witch is pointed out. Sometimes, names of some women of a particular age group are written down on the branches of a sal tree. The name that is on the branch that withers is labelled a witch.
In other cases, small portions of rice are wrapped in cloth bags with different names, and put in a nest of white ants. If the ants eat any of the bags, it is considered proof enough to label the woman a witch.
Shashank Sinha, a research scholar who is currently writing a book about the long-term history of witch hunting in India, believes that witch hunting has changed over time.
“Earlier the prevalent idea was that a woman who was a witch was born as a witch. As in, it was hereditary as opposed to an acquired art. So the woman was killed directly and her family annihilated. Later, the perception changed and it was thought of as a craft that needs training. Now the idea has dispersed and it can refer to anything,” says Sinha, publishing director at Routledge South Asia.
Witch hunting usually follows a death or an epidemic in the village. And as soon as it is believed that a disease has been caused due to the witches, people start offering prayers to undo what they think is a spell. In some cases, boiled rice, together with the ashes of a burnt rooster, is taken in a banana leaf and kept in the middle of a road as an offering to the daayan.
It is only after all this that the option of visiting a medical doctor is even explored.
“Brain malaria, TB (tuberculosis), diarrhoea, malnutrition and anaemia are very common in the villages here. Whenever someone dies because of an illness or lack of healthcare centres or can’t reach the hospital because of the distance or bad roads, someone somewhere is branded as a witch and held responsible for the death,” says Bir Singh Sinku, a social activist from voluntary organization JOHAR in Chaibasa, Jharkhand.
These villages do not have hospitals in the vicinity. There are 15 primary health centres (PHCs), 15 additional primary health centres and 342 health sub-centres in West Singhbhum.
Baralagra is one of 64 villages that fall under the Manjhari block, which is served by a single community health centre (CHC), two PHCs, and 29 auxiliary nurse midwives. The CHC has five doctors and the 10 sub-centres are run by nurses.
In hilly, tribal areas, health ministry population norms require a minimum of one sub-centre per 3,000 people, one PHC per 20,000 people, and a CHC in a population of 80,000.
“I have received several cases when villagers, just because they believe in superstition more than science, reach the hospital very late. We don’t get enough time to save the lives. And when someone dies, there are protests against the doctors. This is all because of illiteracy,” says A.D.N. Prasad, former civil surgeon of Chaibasa in West Singhbhum district.
In the 1840s and ’50s, witch hunting was prevalent in the Rajputana (present day Rajasthan) region and Chhota Nagpur region now in Jharkhand. In 1856-57, there were mass witch hunts among tribal communities of Singhbhum and Santhal Parganas, fusing gender and anti-colonial tensions.
“In fact, the Santhal theory of the origin of witchcraft attributes gender tensions as the reason for witch hunting. Kharia women were excluded from religious festivities and rituals because the tribals feared that menstrual blood attracted evil spirits. Women in tribal communities were left out of Adivasi rituals and religion because of a fear and suspicion of their sexuality,” says Sinha in a research paper Adivasis, Gender and the Evil Eye: The Construction of Witches in colonial Chotanagpur.
In the late 19th century and early 20th, women branded as witches were banished from their communities, fined and, in extreme cases, killed. “From 1933 to the 1970s, there was a decline in the number of such murders. It was a time when Adivasi movements were coming up and attempts were made to tone down any internal tensions,” says Sinha.
Sinha says that since the 1980s “there has been a resurgence in the practice”.
In many reported cases recently, women who are branded as witches were made to walk naked through the village, were gang-raped, had their breasts cut off, teeth broken or heads tonsured, apart from being ostracized from the village. “Never in the past was a woman sexually assaulted or publicly humiliated or stripped naked or paraded after being branded a witch,” says Sinha.
In some cases, witches were also forced to swallow urine and human faeces, to eat human flesh, or drink the blood of a chicken, just like Phoolbani.
Fifty-year-old Phoolbani was branded a witch by the people of Nuwa Gaon village in West Singhbhum district in 2005 for almost six months. One morning when her husband was in the washroom, and her son out at school, a group of villagers, including three people from her in-law’s family barged into her house and dragged her out by her hair.
She was forced to drink urine and animal excreta. Her husband, who was an ojha in the village, was also called a witch. The couple, along with their teenage daughter, were paraded and taken forcibly to an ojha in a village close to the city of Jamshedpur. On the way to Jamshedpur, the husband was pushed from a moving train. The accused later said it was an accident.
Phoolbani and her two children were forced out of their village and now live in an adjoining village close to Chaibasa.
Witch hunting cases are currently registered under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 302 (murder), 320 (grievous hurt), 351 (assault), 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 364a (kidnapping for ransom) and 503 (criminal intimidation).
“One single definition of witchcraft is missing. Every state has a different definition of it. It is ambiguous in every state,” said Asha Bajpai, dean at the Centre for Law and Society, School of Law Rights and Constitutional Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
There is no national law or legislation against witch hunting. In 1991, the Supreme Court, while deciding on a case, had asked the Bihar government to form special cells to deal with witch hunting and draw up a census of widows owning property as they were believed to be particularly vulnerable to being branded as witches.
Three states—Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh—have specific laws against witch hunts—Chhattisgarh’s Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act of 2005, Bihar’s Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act (1999) and the Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001, in Jharkhand. However, physical violence appears to be a prerequisite for any case entering the criminal justice system and, as Bajpai points out, “the issue of mental violence isn’t even talked about”.
The Rajasthan government recently came up with a draft legislation that lays down stringent penalties for those who harass or assault women by branding them witches.
The Karnataka government intends to introduce legislation to crack down on superstition and black magic on the lines of a law in Maharashtra, even though it is facing a lot of opposition.
After 18 years and the death of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, Maharashtra became the first state in India to have a law to prosecute those who use beliefs and superstition to defraud or physically harm others.
“Only three states have specific laws for witch hunting. Why not have national legislation if the practice is prevalent in so many states? National legislation should be a deterrent. In fact, even the surrounding practices should be made an offence. Anyone who supports witch hunting or is a silent spectator should be punished as well,” said Supreme Court senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, who had filed a petition in 2010 asking the apex court to direct Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Orissa, Bihar and Rajasthan to implement and monitor their anti-witchcraft Acts in “letter and spirit”. The petition was rejected.
A study by Delhi-based legal research firm Partners for Law in Development in three states that have special laws for witch hunting says: “Our data from police records show a consistent use of these (special laws) but almost always with the Indian Penal Code, from where the majority of the provisions related to beating, hurt, trespass, theft, murder, and conspiracy, are drawn.”
“There are some cases where the IPC is invoked but the cases where the state law is invoked without the IPC are fewer. Some of the cases in which the state law was invoked without the IPC are found to have compromised and closed,” the report said.
Dehradun-based non-governmental organization Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) claims that more than 5,500 women have been killed in the last 15 years for witchcraft.
And those who weren’t killed, were “tortured, gang-raped, sexual abused, forced to offer pind-daan (an obligatory rite performed among Hindus for the salvation of the dead), drink blood of freshly slaughtered animals,” says RLEK’s Avdhash Kaushal. “Even in the states which have legislation against witch hunting, there is a maximum punishment of three months for the culprits.”
“After murdering the women, the criminal just spends three months in jail and then comes out,” says Kaushal. RLEK has been working for the abolition of the practice and has approached the Supreme Court advocating the passing of a national Bill.
Because in many such cases, nearly the entire village is privy to a conspiracy to murder women whom they call witches, and it is hard to find an eyewitness. And because courts take a long time to decide such case, many witnesses turn hostile towards the end.
Sometimes, those who file a case give up, just as Laguri plans to do.
Three years after the incident, Laguri says she can’t forgive, but she will try to forget. “For how long can I fight? I am lying on this cot and am not sure when I would walk again, if at all I ever will. My husband is insisting that I take the case back,” she says. I don’t have any courage left any more.”