This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Youth Ki Awaaz. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

India Is Calling Women ‘Witches’ To Settle Scores And Get Away With Murder

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

By Devang Pathak:

Note: This article was originally published on Homegrown.

The duality of the Indian existence is a reality we must constantly remind ourselves of, even when we might loathe the answers they provide. The news of India’s surging female pilots, which defy the global average or the tremendous progress made by ISRO in furthering scientific thought and progress, must also be weighed against the widely-held superstitions and deep-rooted patriarchy, which Indians espouse to. If these stand-alone practices make our heads hang in shame, their confluence in the form of witch-hunting in India is perhaps one of the most unbelievable phenomenons to still exist in our times.

Witches, as defined by locals differ as per the states, save for some common characteristics. They are said to possess an evil eye or mouth, capable of killing cattle, eating humans, destroying crops and causing illness. If the term ‘Witch-hunt’ might be used now as a form of euphemism for a targeted pursuit against any unorthodox person or group in America, home to the infamous Salem Witch trials or in Europe, where the burning of ‘witches’ at stakes was a common practice in the Dark Ages, India fails to adhere to any such mild mannerisms.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that 2,097 witch-hunt murders took place in between 2000 and 2012 alone. Jharkhand, with 363 reported deaths leads the chart, with the data from 2000 missing since it was a part of Bihar, while 11 other states join the list. Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Bihar have reported cases of witch-hunting with unofficial figures said to be even higher. In 2013 alone, 160 murders were committed with a witch-hunting motive out of which 54 were committed in Jharkhand alone, while more than 77 have been killed in Assam in witch-hunting related incidents between February 2010 and 2015, with 35 of them being women. But even the startling numbers fail to point out the brutality of the practice.

Brutality Spanning Decades

“In our village, a boy had been suffering from some ailments for several months. He confided to his parents that he dreamt of some witches, including myself, who had been harassing him. His parents narrated the incident to other villagers. Hearing upon this, the villagers flew into a rage and attacked us,” told Sura Hembram to Uday India. “They beat us black and blue. Later, they torched our houses. The mob, subsequently, hacked to death three members of a family, including a one-and-a-half-year-old child on July 3, 2001,” narrated Sura, who hailed from the Saharpur village in Kokrajhar district in Assam.

While witch-hunting is widely practised by certain tribes, the practice is now common even among the Dalits and few minority communities, and as one can predict, the horror of the events narrated above are widespread. A 60-year-old woman and her unmarried 37-year-old daughter were killed in Baralagra village in Jharkhand, in 2009 under the suspicion of them being ‘daayans’. The mother’s body was recovered with ligature marks on her neck, indicating she was hanged while the daughter’s body was never even recovered. But a recent incident of witch-hunting broke through the mainstream due to the severe brutality shown, shaking the sleeping conscience of those who rarely report or acknowledge the widespread nature of witch-hunting.

Porni or Moni Orong, a 63-year-old woman in the No 1 Bhimajuli Village of Assam was brutally dragged and beheaded on 22nd July of this year by a mob. The mother of five was targeted by Anima Ronghangpi, a woman who claimed to be Goddess Lakshmi. She branded Porni a witch and ordered her execution, prompting a mob lead by Anima’s husband Biliram Bey as Porni’s husband and sons attempted to protect her. The incident serves as the general outline where a sickness or an untoward event in a village is referred to an “Ojha“, a witch doctor, or a person claiming to have supernatural powers will prescribe various measures to correct the anomaly. The last resort would involve explaining the phenomenon through the presence of a person in the village, branding him or her a witch. At times, the person who claims to help or ‘heal’ someone is also attacked and branded a witch if he or she fails to save or improve the patient.

Teerath Sahu Was Beaten And Paraded Naked Until She Fainted After Being Dubbed A Witch Alongwith Two Other Women Image Credit: Baba Tamim/Al-Jazeera

The penalty for such labelling is not certain death, but humiliation and ostracization. An elderly couple in Jharkhand were forced to ingest human urine and excrement in July 2012 for witchcraft which caused the death of livestock, while an elderly man in Meghalaya was forced to eat human excrement after he was accused of witchcraft, which caused four girls to become sick and dream of snakes. The most startling revelation about these practices lies in their reasons, which are not supernatural, but lie in the most natural human impulse of greed, covered under a strong scent of patriarchy.

Greed And Misogyny

The revelation of the NCRB data between 1991 and 2010 shows that 1,700 women were killed in the name of witchcraft. Jharkhand police have stated that they receive five reports a month of women being denounced as witches while the figure is nationally believed to be running into thousands. The question that beckons us is why?

“Single women are mostly targeted because they are weak and have no one to support or defend them. Also if a woman does not marry or is widowed, it usually is entitled to her father’s or husband’s property. In an attempt to get hold of the property, jealous relatives or villagers seek such illegal methods,” says Ajay Kumar, the secretary for Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA), an NGO in Jharkhand who also added that women who turn down sexual advances are also branded as witches. “My stepbrother and I had inherited our land after the death of my father. In a bid to capture the property, my stepbrother in collusion with other persons branded me a witch,” said Subhadra Basumatary of Silapara village in Assam. “One day, some villagers began to torture me. They even buried me with an intention to kill me, but I escaped,” she recounted, a tale of thousands like her which ended in a more tragic manner of death.

A decade old documentary by Rakhi Verma titled ‘Indian Witch Hunt’ investigates these witch-hunts in Jharkhand with journalist Sohaila Kapoor stating in the documentary that in many of the cases, the death of these women benefitted someone in the village. Anuja Aggarwal, a professor of sociology with the Delhi University, stated that in more than two-thirds of the cases it was possible to find a material basis for a conflict between the perpetrator and victim and when it finds a trigger such as an illness in the area or a bad crop, it is attributed to the ‘witch’.

Eminent Lawyer Indira Jaisingh, responding to questions raised after the Assam beheading sought to make an interesting comparison. She states how a witch is sought after by people for medical treatment as she is believed to have magical powers. But Asaram Bapu, a guru who is behind bars for allegedly sexually abusing a minor, who also claims to have magical powers to treat medical illness, would never be deemed a witch. She concludes that the true elimination of this practice lies in the removal of gender inequality and in the empowerment of women from the grassroots.

Law And Social Movement

Aamir Khan once said that India’s laws reflect the society we inhabit, a statement which perfectly sums up India’s anti-witch hunting laws. The states of Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have specific anti- witch hunting laws while the Maharashtra’s umbrella Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifices and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act of 2013 provides stipulations for witch-hunts.

Image Source: Telegraph

Assam is ready with its draft of an anti-witch hunting bill, said to be the strictest in the country though many experts have pointed out that the bill won’t have the desired impact as it seeks to manage the crime rather than eliminate it. A study of the existing laws in various states has found that witch-hunts were rampant despite the provisions.

The Anti-Witch Hunt Icon Is The Only Woman From The North-East To Be Nominated For The Nobel Prize Image Source: Better India

The other significant movement in the anti-witch hunt drive has started coming from civil society itself. Assam Mahila Samata Society is a woman’s rights group which has spearheaded the anti-witch hunt drive since 1995 with Birubala Raha, an icon of this movement. The only woman from the North-East to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Raha has been instrumental in saving the lives of more than 30 women after they were branded as witches. Raha used to subscribe to these traditional beliefs herself until one day when a prediction about her son’s death by ‘one possessed by God’ proved to be false. She then dedicated her life to protecting others from such persecution. The organisation has intervened in many cases where they were able to ensure that the women could resume their normal lives through dialogue and protection but in a few, women still face isolation and ostracisation as they continue living in the villages.

The Fault In Our Fears

The causes for the witch-hunts, which start from a personal dispute or desire, getting aggravated by the fears and superstitions of the rest, cannot be blamed on illiteracy and ignorance alone. The truth lies in our subscription of these superstitions even in the urban landscape, from the beliefs in bamboo trees for good luck to the urgency of reading one’s daily horoscopes. The superstitions we harbour, no matter how minute, indicate our patronage of fear, the same underlying emotion which propels those who practice witch-hunt into cruelty.

About the author: A firm believer in ‘seeking the truth, no matter how devastating the revelation’, Devang Pathak has been a writer and blogger for 4 years. He loves writing about anthropology, history, mass media, and human rights as well as satire and fiction.
Follow his blog, or tweet to him @DevangPat.

You must be to comment.

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

Similar Posts

By India Development Review (IDR)

By Mrittika Mallick

By Rohit Malik

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below