“Some Stories Around Witches”: A Painful Reminder Of The Horrors Of Witch-Hunts In India

Posted on September 17, 2016 in Culture-Vulture

By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2016 that is currently going on in Delhi (13th – 20th September), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring reviews of films and interviews with directors. This year’s theme is “Reflections and Ruminations.” 

After they screened Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” during my undergraduate literature course, I left the classroom reeling from images of Salem witch trial “mass hysteria”. But I went straight to lunch with my friends, secure in the belief that witch hunting had been left behind in the 17th century, along with those ugly bonnets.

Of course I was wrong, because the same year we were studying Miller, a spate of murders were being committed in Odisha, all of them against persons accused of witchcraft. Things were so bad that even the Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, passed in 2013, has had little impact. And Lipika Singh Darai’s film “Some Stories Around Witches” is a brilliant exploration of the same.

Today we may hear the term “witch-hunt” in context of political slander and smear campaigns, but we would do well to remember where it comes from – the feverish persecution of people (and usually elderly women) that is as irrational as it is terrifying. The witch-hunts in Odisha and several other parts of India are not an easy issue to pick through, but Darai’s film is an exceptional attempts, perfectly blending her measured narrative with the stories her interviewees share with her.

Darai returns to her home state, following the stories of those whose lives were severely affected by witch-hunts. She meets Moumita, a school-child who is thrown out of her hostel, because people believed she uses witchcraft to turn into a cat and make other students ill. Later, she interviews a weeping aanganwadi worker who has watched parents physically drag their children out of her care. But the story of the old woman who was stripped, tied to an electric pole, and beaten to an inch of her life is by far the most heartbreaking.

The electric pole incident (which is one of three chapters in Darai’s film) was also particularly momentous – thousands of people crowded a tiny village road to see the “witch” for themselves, and local police had to be deployed to rescue the battered woman from the incensed mob. The constable from Rairangarh, M. Soren, speaks about how the villagers refused to even slacken her ropes, fearing that she would fly away. “That’s how deep the superstition is,” he rues from the passenger seat of the car driving Darai and her crew to where the lynching had happened.

Helplessness is the most poignant feeling you have while watching this film. Why have these people been put through all this? Why did it have to escalate to such chaos and violence? As you scramble for answers to these and other questions, Darai presents as complete a picture of it as possible. The witch-hunts all begin during times of great strain – deaths of family members, failed crops, ill or dying livestock and other such misfortunes that have an immediate impact on people in agrarian societies. All of this is attributed to witchcraft and demonic possession, even when the real reasons are in plain sight. And one of the interviewees, an unnamed young girl who only ever talks off-camera, says that living in a state with precious few resources, watching a parent die, and having to drop out of school can cause all kinds of stress to a person, and their mental health issues are then labelled as witchcraft.

The Simlipal Sanctuary, home to over 65 villages where many of these witch-hunts have have been reported, is not idyllic. The people here suffer from malnutrition, there is no sanitation, no doctors and no teachers. And it doesn’t help that the entire area is closed off for about six months each year. With little or no access to the right resources, superstition has made community members to turn on one another. Motivated by greed, disputes over property and a range of other personal conflicts, the witch-hunts often take a bloody turn, with people taking matters into their own hands – not only overstepping local authorities, but also trying to involve them.

Darai speaks with Sarpanch C. Singh, who was actually asked to sign an agreement that would allow villagers to deal with “witches” however they saw fit. “I can’t give my consent to this,” he said. “I am against blaming someone for misfortune in the village” But he stands out in a sea of voices that have given into this fear. It was at a local meeting that one of men from the village uttered the maxim that has long supported these witch-hunts: “Whatever the majority decides is right.”

Catch Lipika Singh Darai’s film “Some Stories Around Witches” at 5.45 pm on September 18 at India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.