Witch-hunting with Impunity We are perhaps familiar of people being branded as

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A street play against witch-hunting in a village in West Midnapore- Photo Credit/ Telegraph India

“Witch-hunting  is a modern phenomenon with ancient  roots. We are perhaps familiar of people being branded as witches in medieval times when certain people were labelled as ‘witches’ and executed across Europe, Africa and Asia. The victims included Joan of Arc, who was burnt alive at the stake, at the  age of 19 for heresy, on 30 May 1431.” But whereas in most of  Europe and other places, the custom is now extinct, it flourishes in Jharkhand and some of the tribal states in India. Elderly women/widows live in fear of being killed as ‘witches’ when neighbours become ill or their livestock die unexpectedly.

Although witch-hunting is to be seen in several states of India, only 7 states have legislated against it  declaring it to be a crime – Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Assam. However, most of those accused are quickly let out on bail and there is no system in place to re-arrest them. The Jharkhand Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001 stipulates that the punishment for identifying a woman as a witch is imprisonment for up to three months and/or a fine of Rs.1,000, which is not a sufficient deterrent for perpetrators. Causing harm to anyone in the name of witchcraft can lead to a prison term for up to six months and/or a fine of Rs.2,000. Ojhas or witch doctors  found practicing sorcery can be jailed for up to a year and/or fined Rs.2,000.  However, in most cases, the reason for branding a someone a witch is not just superstition; other issues are tagged on –  someone who would like to settle a land, financial dispute or marital dispute. There could be a personal vendetta involved  and branding someone a witch could be a “solution”, especially if the victim is from a non-dominant caste

Witch-hunting involves the branding of people, usually women, as witches, either after an observation made by an ojha or bej or a witch doctor. The victim, branded as a witch, is then subjected to numerous forms of torture—from beating, burning, being paraded naked through the village, being forced to eat human excrement to, sometimes, even being raped. In some cases, their hair is cut off, the victim and her children are socially ostracized and even put to death, and that too, in a brutal manner. In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the repeated birth of a daughter. But  activists and government officials opine that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for the exploitation of the mostly illiterate women in various forms. Superstition is deployed as an excuse as the concept of a dayan  or witch has social acceptance.

Every so often a woman is branded a witch so that she can be thrown her out of the village and her land grabbed or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Quite often it is used to punish women who question and defy social norms. The practice of branding a vulnerable as a witch and then stigmatizing her is also connected to the occurrence of patriarchal attitudes and a strong antipathy to women’s right to property. The evolving patterns indicate that independent, strong willed women, who might have challenged the status quo, have been targeted, and subjected to suspicion and violence. Women have been blamed for everything from a bad harvest to unexpected deaths of farm animals. Behind these targeted attacks are motives  such as property disputes, petty disputes and power struggles which then conveniently  develop into accusations of witchcraft and then to violence and stigmatization.

The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data reveals that a total of  464 women, a large number of  them from tribal communities, have been branded ‘witches’ and killed in Jharkhand alone between 2001 and 2014. This data is not necessarily conclusive as not all crimes are reported as a great number of cases are never taken to the police. Further, due to factors such as lack of proper investigation, absence of witnesses, minor punishments to the perpetrators, compromise between the victim and the perpetrator, many cases are withdrawn at various points of time. Even though the spectrum of violence involved in cases of witch-hunting is very broad, it is usually only when physical violence is recorded, often publicly orchestrated by a group of accused, that the criminal justice system comes into play.  India has seen the killings of 2,290 persons, mostly women, for supposedly being witches during the same years. Jharkhand clearly appears to be the worst-afflicted state, accounting for more than one fifth of the victims.

Although the data beyond 2015 is not yet available, the social milieu has not changed much in the hinterland and therefore , statistics, when available are not likely to present a better picture than before in Jharkhand, which has continued to see the  senseless killing of women. In many cases, the perpetrators include the relatives of the victim, and the case remains unreported. If reported, there is not much progress due to the absence of witnesses and poor levels of investigation by the local police who may be themselves sympathetic to local custom and time-honored practice. Changing attitudes includes not only exposing criminal motives of the perpetrators but also promoting rational thinking about superstition, which sometimes runs counter to long-held traditional beliefs. Indeed, legislation is not a cure for superstition by itself;  improving critical thinking is the key as justice and the issue of superstition are related. There is no easy solution to stopping this long-standing problem of witch hunting. People from  various sections of society have attempted to stop the violence and  many rationalists and women’s rights groups have pushed for more concrete efforts to combat ignorance and superstition. It would seem a combination of many approaches will be needed to effectively battle this everyday low-level violence that hovers over Jharkhand and other affected states like a plague.

Shantanu Dutta, a former Air Force Officer, is now a Development
Worker for the last 25 years and more

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