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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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