By Bhumika Rawat:
A woman who gives birth to a child, takes care of family, can also be a ‘witch’. It’s shocking, but it is the bitter truth in some parts of this country. Witch branding has very strong roots in villages.
I have lived in Rajasthan all my life. These are things you hear happen in other areas, not your own. Earlier this year, I joined the India Fellow Social Leadership program and as part of that, I started working with women Self Help Group federations in the notorious Kotra block of south Rajasthan. What I see on a daily basis here has changed my perspective forever.
Research has recognised 12 states where witch hunts are unrestrained, they are — Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Bihar. In these regions, for generations, women have been frequently branded as witches in villages, blamed for unexplained or incurable illnesses among villagers and livestock. Due to the lack of education and medical facilities in villages, mortality rates are high. This allows these superstitious beliefs to prevail. The death of a male member in the family, gives a reason to the people to call a woman a ‘witch’.
I met a lady named Radha (name changed), who has been branded as a ‘witch’ in her family. She is a vegetable vendor and I see her coming to the city to sell vegetables.
The story started with her brother in-law. He had cancer and it was detected when it was at the last stage. Someone asked them to go to a church for medicine. He refused to go there due to the fear of shame, he and family would apparently face if they went to the church. He decided to commit suicide. That was the start of bad days for Radha.
Her mother in-law came to her house and started throwing stones on her house and abusing her. Her children were at home and got scared, called her and asked her to come home soon. She came and her neighbours, along with her mother-in-law, started throwing stones on her. They abused her, called her a witch and yelled profanities. But she collected her strength and faced them alone, sending them back. But the story had only begun that day. Till date, no one visits her house, and people turn their face away when they see her on the streets.
Her hard times persisted when her other brother in-law, his wife and their 1-year-old son died due to AIDS. Again the same things happened with her but this time with heightened aggression, as this incident was somehow a confirmation of their suspicions. I was impressed by her courage to face it and still fight against her family and her community. After talking to her, I understood that even her own husband calls her a ‘witch’. Only her children support her.
Seva Mandir, the organisation I work with, is now supporting her and a case will be registered soon against her family and community members. The government’s stance on witch branding is ridiculous. At the national level, the punishment is the same for slapping a person and branding a women a ‘witch’. Section 323 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), prescribes one year imprisonment and a Rs. 1,000 fine to anyone who causes harm voluntarily.
In states like Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Chhatishgarh, there are now laws specific to witch-hunting. But the implementation of law is poor and its awareness is poorer. Many activists are working on the drafting of such laws and their implementation.
I am still not convinced with the laws against this medieval custom and the effectiveness of its implementation. I am confused as to how this situation should be tackled – at the level of awareness, the increase in education, better medical facilities, or the legal system? How long must women in this country succumb to such a primitive bias based on gender and superstitions.