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Hunting the Vulnerable: Witches in Indian Hinterland

It was past midnight. A man was suddenly woken up by the furious banging on the
door of his house, as though whoever was standing outside would break the door
open any moment. He looked at his wife and two daughters, sleeping peacefully, and
a deep sense of foreboding came over him. He decided not to open the door, hoping
against hope that the commotion outside would stop. It didn’t. Moments later, the
door burst open and a mob descended into his home. It came straight for his wife
and dragged her out by her hair. The man heard his wife’s desperate pleas, but the
crowd was relentless. Someone from the mob struck her with a wood-cutting axe,
and then she was thrown to the ground, below a tamarind tree. Four figures were
already lying nearby, which, the man realised in horror were the corpses of other
women who belonged to the same village. The women had been stripped and
beaten, and finally hacked to death. Even as the sun rose, the attack continued, with
villagers assaulting the lifeless bodies of their own neighbours.

This night of endless horrors did not occur in sixteenth-century Europe, or in some
city far away in the Dark Ages. It took place in the month of August, in 2016, in a tiny
village called Kanjia Marhatola
 in Ranchi, Jharkhand. The five women had been
suspected as practitioners of witchcraft, accused of somehow causing the death of a
boy a week ago, and consequently killed in a ‘witch hunt’. A witch hunt is a
superstitious practice involving mass hysteria and moral panic, which seeks
to ‘eliminate’ or purge individuals suspected of practising black magic.

Historically, women have borne the brunt of these practices, especially those who
followed alternate methods of worship. While witch-hunting has been condemned,
rejected, and regretted by most societies, the practice continues to take place in
certain regions of the world till date. In India, these witch hunts occur even today,
especially in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Chhattisgarh.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, over 2500 people in India have
been attacked, tortured, or murdered in witch hunts between 2000 and 2016. Many
of these cases involve the presence of ‘witch doctors’, known as ojhas in certain
regions. These local quacks often lead the trials of suspected ‘witches’, designing
elaborate tests
 to establish whether a woman is a witch or not. One of these
methods is to write the name of these women on the branches of a tree; if it dries up
and dies, the suspect is declared a witch. The treatment that the victims are
subjected to is unspeakably inhumane and horrifying: women have been stripped
publicly, raped, forcibly paraded through their village, attacked mercilessly with iron
rods and sticks, and even starved. They have been socially ostracised in most
cases, and brutally murdered in others.

But why would a practice so heinous in nature, still be prevalent in the 21st century,
especially when initiatives towards the eradication of superstition are so high in number? Sociologists explain that modern-day witch hunts are not just the outcome
of superstitious beliefs. They are symptomatic of a highly unequal social structure,
which rests on the foundation of patriarchy and the caste system. Author Shashank
Shekhar Sinha underscores the impact
 of the ‘politics of development’ in the
context of Jharkhand, which records one of the highest numbers of witch-hunt
related crimes in the country. The current development model in Jharkhand has
adversely affected the indigenous communities of the state, which have constantly
been losing their lands to development projects. In the face of impoverishment and
seemingly no recourse, they end up looking for ‘scapegoats’, mostly women, out of
whom they can ‘exorcise off’ the bad luck. Similarly, in Gujarat, the growing disparity
between villages and cities
 is seen as a major factor. In several villages, infant
mortality is rising, there is a noticeable decline in agricultural produce, and children
are suffering from malnutrition. Economists suggest that this exclusion of certain
regions and communities from development plans leads to poverty and widespread
disease, which then gives rise to a culture of superstition and violence. When
children die from easily preventable or treatable diseases, or crops fail in the
absence of proper infrastructural facilities, or when communities notice the absolute
lack of prosperity in their surroundings, they often resort to irrational means to
change the circumstances; sometimes, they even use superstition to justify the
violence they inflict on women and other marginalised members of their community
out of ‘frustration’. Local quacks, who often proclaim themselves as witch-hunters,
themselves can only flourish where proper healthcare and educational facilities are
lacking.

Apart from the politics of development, another major cause of witch-hunting in India
involves property disputes. Women who own land, especially widowed or single
women, end up becoming the main subjects of rumours involving the supernatural,
often spread by their own relatives in order to grab their land. They are then
pressurised and forced into signing over their property rights as punishment for
practising black magic. Women are also labelled witches to force sexual favours out
of them, to justify sexual assault against them or as revenge for turning down sexual
advances.

Among women, Dalit and Adivasi women are particularly vulnerable to such hunts,
especially when they are seen as challenging the existing caste hegemony. In fact,
power dynamics play a crucial part in this practice. In societies where women are
generally not allowed to own or control resources by themselves, land-owning
women are not only seen as a threat to prevailing social norms but also as
illegitimate owners of those resources. Practices like these, which involve the public
humiliation of women, are designed to send a larger message to the society, to set
an example. In 2012, three women in Gujarat objected to their male relatives
relieving themselves on the land where the women grew their crops. A few months
after the episode, two of the men died from separate illnesses. The remaining men
then initiated a witch hunt, accusing the women of being dakans (the Gujarati term
for witches) that ate the souls of their relatives, beating them in public with iron pipes
and forcing them to sign over their fertile land. The message was clear: if you dare
to speak against men, be prepared to face the consequences.

Experts allege that the cases of witch hunts that are recorded are far fewer than the
actual number of such incidents. Most victims of witch hunts are not only extremely
vulnerable, but they might also lack the social and economic capital to report the
violence they are subjected to. In a few cases, local Panchayats have also been
involved
 in sanctioning such witch hunts, empowering the mob even further. So,
what legal remedies can survivors pursue? While a national-level law specifically
pertaining to witch-hunting does not exist yet, provisions under the Indian Penal
Code 1860 can be applied for such cases, including section 302 (charge for murder),
section 376 (charge for rape) and section 354 (charge for assault intended to
outrage a woman’s modesty) among others. Importantly, several states have passed
legislations specific to this practice: The Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act,
2013; The Rajasthan Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, 2015; and The Assam Witch-
Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2015,
among others. Demands
for national-level legislation to prevent and punish acts of witch-hunting, however,
continue to be on the rise.

Suditi Selvam

Delhi South '22

Writer
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