New Delhi Letter: Witch-hunting used as tool to target women

Villagers in rural areas accused of casting spells are being punished and exploited

Fishermen in rural Assam where witch-hunting is prevalent, not only among the state’s largely superstitious and underdeveloped tribal communities and its tea plantation workers, but also in several other regions. Photograph: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty

Fishermen in rural Assam where witch-hunting is prevalent, not only among the state’s largely superstitious and underdeveloped tribal communities and its tea plantation workers, but also in several other regions. Photograph: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty

 

Police arrested 16 people in India’s northeastern Assam state last month for brutally murdering a 63-year old woman for practicising witchcraft, in what has long been a recurring barbaric occurrence across the country.

Purni Orang (63), declared a sorceress in a tribal settlement in Assam’s remote Sonitpur district for casting an evil spell on her village, was stripped naked and publicly beheaded.

The villager was one of 90 people, mostly illiterate women, who were similarly killed – burnt alive or stabbed to death – over the past six years in Assam after being declared witches, local officials said.

They say such savagery is prevalent, not only among the state’s largely superstitious and underdeveloped tribal communities and its tea plantation workers, but equally in several other regions.

These include the contiguous eastern provinces of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh, and southern Andhra Pradesh, all of which have large, uneducated tribal populations, steeped in animism and the occult.

Ritual

Indian newspapers regularly publish accounts of poor and low caste women being branded “dains” or witches.

After being accused of fostering bad karma upon their communities, they are mercilessly beaten and then killed, often in full view in village squares.

A large number have also been tied to trees and caned with hundreds of people looking on, apparently firm in the belief they were participating in a ritual guaranteed to cleanse their societies of evil and wickedness.

The more fortunate victims were stripped and had their faces blackened and heads shaven before they were publicly paraded and eventually chased from their homes.

The majority of these women were accused of casting spells that brought about illnesses, epidemics, poor harvests and droughts.

Social activists and police officials, however, say “witch hunting” is often a ploy in rural areas to justify violence against women or, in some instances, target them for their houses and property.

They say many are victims of powerful men, seeking to punish them either for resisting their sexual advances or for challenging established male-dominated societal norms.

“The reason behind witch-hunting is the lack of national legislation against it and ineffective implementation of established rules,” says Rimjhim Vaishnavi, a student in the National University for Study and Research in Law in Ranchi in eastern Jharkhand state.

In a recent research paper, she argues that India lacks specific federal legislation or laws against witch-hunting, which is being dealt with by “wholly inadequate” sections of the Indian penal code, which dates back to colonial times. Punishment under these nebulous statutes was at best token – one-year imprisonment and the equivalent of a €14 fine.

“Some states that have enacted laws (against witch-hunting) are not effective, as they lack the legal backing of a national legislation,” says Vaishnavi, adding that efforts to formulate one have, at best, been halfhearted.

Culpability in such horrendous crimes is also difficult, if not impossible, to establish, as witnesses can be hard to come by.

Consequently, the handful of arrests that have been affected, largely under media or activist pressure, rarely, if at all, lead to convictions.

In most instances the victims’ families pursue the path of least resistance, simply by disassociating themselves from the crime, lest they also incur the wrath of their local communities.

In such tight-knit societies, guilt by association runs the dreaded risk of ostracism, which can, and often does, persist for generations.

Superstition

“The problem with regard to witch-hunting is a combination of poverty, superstition and illiteracy which no one is even attempting to deal with, as resources are limited,” says female activist Seema Mustafa. Dealing with victims of witchcraft is simply not a priority in rural India, she says.

Working for decades to debunk belief in superstition, the Indian Rationalists Association has been campaigning to enhance awareness about innocent women being branded witches.

But they too are resource-strapped and their laudable efforts are, at best, incremental in countering medieval beliefs that continue to persist.

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