Reality and Intervention of Witch Hunting: A Crime against Human Dignity

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The easiest way to grab a woman’s property in rural hinterland is to brand her a witch. Unbelievable but horrifically true in 21st century India,  in the interiors of states are beaten, paraded naked, disgraced, ostracised and then robbed of their land by anti-social elements and sometimes even by greedy relatives. Witch hunting is a tool to oppress the critical thinking and wider participation of in decision making process in the patriarchal society. The conviction rate for witch hunting crimes is dismal. The perpetrators, in most cases, are male relatives and their motive is to usurp the property of single women. The modus operandi is to disgrace and ostracise the victim. Shirin Shabana highlights the witch hunting cases in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, suggesting the way out, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

It is impossible for Jagesari Devi (32), a tribal woman of Sonebhadra district, to forget the fateful day when she became a victim of witch hunting and her tongue was chopped off. She was branded a dayan (witch) by a local ojha (sorcerer). Though her wounds have healed, the scars remain forever. The unforgettable nightmare has rendered the Holi festival colourless for her.

“Am I really a dayan,” wonders Jagesari, and following this inhuman act, today, she can neither speak properly nor can eat or drink with ease.

Witch hunting is still prevalent and brutally practiced in the twenty-first century in the rural parts of India. Almost every other day, a woman is branded a witch or victimised for witch-hunting in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh, where government and NGOs deliberately keep mum on that issue. PVCHR came to know through local dailies and activists that witch hunting is being committed in the remotest corner of the state, in Mayourpur block, of Dudhi Tehsil, in Sonebhadra district, of Uttar Pradesh.

To probe into the fact of women branded as ‘witch’ a squad of the psychotherapist from PVCHR reached Mayourpur and provided the psychosocial support through testimonial therapy to the victimised women. They need to regain their lost dignity and honour through a form of social recognition in which their private truth is openly recognised and becomes public truth, and their suffering is acknowledged and becomes part of the social memory. A general often surrounds political repression, as if it only exists in the minds of the survivor, but the narratives of the survivors will preserve history.

Mayourpur, a place which is quite economically backward, where people have almost no access to the basic necessities of life be it education and . In this kind of situation, people tend to be steeped into obscurantism and superstition. And anything bad that might befall these villagers like bad crop, diseases, sudden and unexplained death of someone in the family, or drying of well tend to be considered the work of some evil ‘witch’. Thus, begins a witch hunt to locate the person responsible. When daughter of Jagesari’s brother-in- law Sahdev died due to illness on August 1, 2010, she went to Sahdev’s house to condole the death, she saw that an ojha present there. He started branding Jagesari as a dayan (witch) and held her responsible for the death. The villagers gathered for the burial stood as mute spectators and her tongue was slashed as punishment.

Manbasia (45) is another woman, who has been subjected to inhuman ordeal in Ghaghari Tola,  Sahgora village, under Babhani police station, in Myorpur block, of Sonebhadra district. After the demise of a boy in the village, she was not only attacked with sharp weapons but also paraded naked in public, on July 17, 2010. “I was not a dayan, then why was I paraded naked” she questioned? Her husband Jodhilal said he had to mortgage his land for his wife’s treatment.

The frequency of such assaults and the dismal conviction rate, despite the existence of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, has terrified victims into a silent of the cruelty. Some of the most common concerns in relation to witch hunting are that in very few cases have the authorities actually responded to the complaints, and witch hunting is severely under reported, poorly investigated and prosecuted with negligible rates of conviction. The police often do not register FIRs.

The easiest way to grab a woman’s property in rural hinterland is to brand her a witch. Unbelievable but horrifically true in 21st century India, women in the interiors of states are beaten, paraded naked, disgraced, ostracised and then robbed of their land by anti-social elements and sometimes even by greedy relatives. Witch hunting is a tool to oppress the critical thinking and wider participation of women in decision-making process in the patriarchal society. In our Bhojpuri language, they are called ‘logical women’ as ‘Kan-Dayan’ (the initial form of witch hunting).

However, the conviction rate for witch hunting crimes is dismal. The perpetrators, in most cases, are male relatives and their motive is to usurp the property of single women. The modus operandi is to disgrace and ostracise the victim.

The fact is that it is not superstition that is at the root of many of these accusations of witchcraft but socio-economic factors: land-grabbing, property disputes, personal rivalry and resistance to sexual advances. In many cases, a woman who inherits land from her deceased husband is asked to disown the land by her husband's family or other men. If she resists, they approach the Ojhas and bribe them to brand her a witch. This strategy of branding a woman a witch is also used against women who spurn the sexual advances of the powerful men in the community.

PVCHR in collaboration of Savitri Bai Phule Women Forum organised and honoured these women on March 10, 2011, on the death anniversary of Savitri Bai Phule known as Bharti Mahila Mukti Diwas. The honour ceremony was organised in the Varanasi city and it was riskier in the village. The objective of the ceremony was to get them to resettle back into the village.

PVCHR immediately intervened and sent the testimonies to the National Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi and Director General of Police (DGP), Lucknow, to draw its attention towards this social evil and get victims of witch hunting some justice, Deepak Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Sonbhadra in a vide letter no. एस /शि – 26ए/11 dated 9th May, 2011, directed to be vigilant in preparing a list of actors, who brand women as witch, especially the Ojha, Sokha and the others involved in this type of activity. It requested to hold regular meetings with an effort to create awareness against the practice of witch hunting. On the order of the  (Case no. 11772/24/69/2011-WC) three survivors Jagesari, Manbasia and Somari Devi received the compensation of three lakh rupees each from the state government.

On September 25, 2011, PVCHR wrote an open letter to Prime Minster of India [iv] and demanded for a national and special empowerment programme for the women in the witch hunting prone area and awareness campaign to promote education and health.

Since 2001, PVCHR started using for torture prevention advocacy after a news report with a title, “Woman paraded naked in Karnataka.” According to the reported news she belonged to the scheduled caste community and resided in Onenur village, in Bellary district of Andhra Pradesh. The men were angry with the community, because she eloped with a Dalit boy the previous month. When the boy returned to the village, he put blame on the woman for instigating him. On the complaint, NHRC took cognizance and called the report from concerned authorities.

Now, we are using online social media as a cost-effective medium for the monitoring of the cases of human rights violations. PVCHR intervened on the news reporting of in the brutal case of witch hunting that happened on 12.02.2012, in Tejpur, in Sontipur district, where Lakshmi Gawl was branded, murdered and buried. The day before this incident, another forty-five year tribal woman was burnt alive on Sonari, in Shibsagar district. On the orders of the NHRC (54/3/16/2012-WC) the state government of provided compensation to the deceased women. The state government has initiated various steps to eradicate the social evil of practicing witchcraft in association with the NGOs and State Commission for Women to eradicate, control and create awareness on witch hunting in the state. It is also mentioned that a draft bill conferring right to protection against witch hunting has been prepared by a committee under the  State Commission for Women, which is under consideration of the government.


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©Shirin Shabana Khan

Pix sourced by the author.

Shirin Shabana Khan

Shirin Shabana Khan

Shirin Shabana Khan is professional socialworkers, graduated and post graduated in social work. She joined Peoples’ Vigilancecommittee on Human Rights (PVCHR)/Jan Mitra Nyas (JMN) in 2007 during the time when organization was transforming from activist to professional organization. She committed her life for the social cause after coming in close connection with the problem faced by the marginalized section in the society. Now she is program Director of the organization and leading the initiative “Healing and marginalized communities in India” with specific focus on creating torture free model villages.
Shirin Shabana Khan