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Witch Hunting: The Silent Form of Gender Based Violence and the Need to Bridge the Rural Urban Divide by Bipasha Saikia

The Author: Bipasha Saikia is a Law Student Studying at National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam

Introduction

Industrialization was introduced in India during the colonial times and was concentrated in only a few areas. More than 74.7 percent of the population in India still lives in rural areas and 24.3 percent inhabit urban areas.[i] Post independence, India began to industrialize on its own instead of exporting raw materials. Till 1980, the rural and the urban sectors in India were laid equal emphasis upon. However, poor performance of the public sector undertakings over the years led to the economic reforms in the 1990s whose fallout was the growth and the expansion of cities whereas rural infrastructure and poverty alleviation got overlooked in the process. The rural counterparts of modern independent India suffered from “economic stagnation.”[ii] This “lop-sided development” resulted in an increased rural to urban migration leading to an abandonment of the concept of inclusive development. Urbanisation failed to bring about any desired change in the social sector especially an attitudinal change towards women.[iii] This problem of indifference towards the rural sector aggravated due to factors like lack of transportation for which children in rural areas have to travel miles to attend government-funded schools, absence of proper health centres that encouraged the growth of traditional healers with no expertise who often exploit the sheer ignorance of the villagers etc. Decades of planned development has failed to yield substantive positive results.[iv] It can be deduced that the rural-urban dichotomy has been widened by economic reforms and globalisation.

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From being dubbed as “the mysterious land” by the West to the proud distinction of being the second largest economy of the world, Indians are on a much better footing now. The world has recognised that development of a nation to its utmost potential is impossible without the active participation of women folk of that nation. Tracking the progress record of the “weaker sex”, the women in India can be said to have come a long way in all spheres. Women have broken social taboos and have destroyed the societal constructions of the term “gender” by not confiding themselves in socially-demarcated spheres. However, the same cannot be said about women in rural areas mainly the tribal women. The social sector, especially in rural India is mired by many evils. Scientific temper has not yet released the religious temperament of these people. They have a tendency to rationalise bad events.[v] The changes due to modernisation are not as conspicuous in rural areas as in their urban counterparts.[vi] Rural India has been under this garb of anti-modernity wave owing to social obstacles like conservative attitudes, wide prevalence of age-old customs, rigidity of the caste-system, ignorance or political obstacles such as corruption, indifferent attitude of people at power, poor infrastructure, etc. In this context, the position of women in the rural society is of special significance. The strong rural social system compels the women folk to surrender themselves to the patriarchal values because of which, they have been ignored and been denied opportunities for participating and sharing the benefits of education and development.  The mindset of the women is equally a contributor to her poor status. In the words of Goods and Esptein: “Central to the woman’s position is her own contradictions and inner tensions. Although woman knows freedom is good, she is socialised to accept willingly her subordinate position in the society.”[vii] The existence of an antithetical relationship between culture and modernity, with women being seen as the representative of the bearers of the Indian culture has taken a heavy toll on women, who have been reduced to cultural artefacts. Therefore, women attempting to wriggle out of this socially constructed role of culture-bearers are still looked down upon in certain conservative pockets. The ugly side of this discrimination time and again manifests itself in varying forms. Dark tales of horror continue to persist especially from remote corners of the country. True to its character of being a superstitious country ( as labelled by the progressive Western societies), this conflict of interest between science and superstition still continues in India as most of the rural and tribal areas lurch under this veil of superstition. Certain superstitions are extremely brutal to the extent of causing death of a person. Under no circumstance, should such practices be allowed, whatsoever be the cause. Witch hunting is one such killing practice. It is a systematic act of violence against women whereby the entire community sanctions the punishment meted out to the person being accused of witch craft.[viii]  The least-talked about violence against women, it is a shameful blot on humanity. Accusing an innocent woman of causing ailments or other misfortunes, especially the widows and single-women and branding her as a witch, following it up with public ridicule and death is one of the grossest form of human rights violations. Witchcraft for long, has been a part of the tribal customs. The Santhal Theory of Witchcraft attributes gender-tensions as the reason for witch-hunting. The Kharia women were excluded from ritual activities as it was believed that menstrual blood attracted evil spirits. Men folk feared the sexuality of women, which, over the course of time led to the development of this practice.[ix] Witchcraft is known by different names in Indian languages such as ‘Banamati’, ‘evil eye’, ‘Dayan’, ‘Chudail’ ‘Bhootni’, etc.[x] More shocking are the records of such crimes. According to National Crime Record Bureau, more than 2,500 people were suspected of practicing witchcraft and have been killed in India over the last fifteen years (1999-2014)[xi] In Assam, districts like Kokrajhar, Kamrup (rural), Mayong, Goalpara, Lakhimpur and Karbi Anglong are mainly witness to this menace.[xii] Almost the entire tribal belt in India suffers from this humiliating medieval-age evil.[xiii] This practice that instils immense fear, violence and destruction in these backward areas are reminiscent of the great witch hunts of Europe and the Massachusetts Bay Colony centuries ago.[xiv]

Bereft of proper medical facilities, sanitation system, proper educational system,[xv] etc. along with the disadvantage of inaccessibility due to rough terrains and remoteness, it is not surprising to note the high prevalence of quacks or ojhas (exorcist) in these areas, who on failure to cure diseases, due to lack of any medical knowledge, pin the blame on so-called witches of casting their dirty spells on innocent lives. “Bad luck” on these villages like bad crops, scanty or no rainfall, death in the family, loss of a child or a newborn or even drying up of wells are attributed to witch-spells.[xvi]

Studies undertaken to understand the root cause of this phenomenon have indicated the reasons to be more of socio-economic than mere superstition, although originally the concept of witch hunting was based on superstition, it is more of a conspiracy now. This is the difference between the traditional and the modern cause of witch-hunting.[xvii] The causes of the witch hunts in India revolve around patriarchy, greed, and fear. Socio-economic issues like land grabbing, revenge for refusal to sexual advances or settling scores are the compelling factors.  As women gain power in these communities, witchcraft is invoked as a way of keeping women in subservient roles to ensure patriarchy.[xviii] Sociologist Bula Bhadra described witch killing as “genderised mass murder.” Belief in this practice arises from the prevalence of the notion that women are morally weaker than men and are more susceptible to the advances of the devil and therefore are frequent practitioners of witchcraft.[xix] Jyotsna Chaterjee, an activist of the New Delhi-based Women’s Non Governmental Organisation states that, “The patriarchal society is reluctant to give women their property rights and the widows are regularly killed after being called witches.” This victimisation is basically the reinforcement of power-play in the society. The rich, powerful ones “culturally imperialise” the weaker ones and brand them as witches. At times when a woman is suffering from epilepsy or dementia, the family members who no longer wishes to look after her, in order to get social sanction, brand her as a witch and throw her out of the house.[xx] Soma Chaudhari, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in the US, underlines “stress relief” as another factor behind this cruel practice:[xxi]

“These are communities and areas where there is much impoverishment going on, so there is a constant sort of stress. And it doesn’t take long for the community to start gossiping and then also coming together and getting support against the ‘witch’. And the witch hunt then becomes sort of a representation for stress relief. You go, you eradicate the woman or you beat her, or you make her confess – and the stress is relieved a bit.”

Most of these so-called witches are forced to abandon their own villages and flee to protect themselves. Those whose lives are spared, face humiliation, torture and banishment from their village, some are forcibly stripped and paraded in public; some have their mouths crammed with human excreta. The belief is that shaming a woman weakens her evil powers.[xxii] The families of these women too suffer the brunt of social ostracism along with all the loss of the psychological balance due to social stigmatisation.

In the present scenario, most of these “cursed women” have turned these needles of accusation in their favour by opening up their own organisations to spread awareness against this practice.[xxiii] The pertinent questions at this juncture are- Can these women rise up against these practices and successfully wards off this evil? Can they change the existing power relationships that place them in subordinate positions? Women who have been courageous enough to denounce such practices have often suffered immense physical injuries and mental trauma. Women who had stood up to demand their rights over their ancestral property have often been the victims of conspiracy for their elimination. Women who entered into politics and contested the polls have been targets of their opponents.[xxiv]

Birubala Rabha is an anti-witch hunting activism in Assam. A survivor of this evil, she has been instrumental in spreading awareness witch-hunting and has successfully rescued over 30 women branded as witches.[xxv] However, one voice alone will not suffice, more such women must protest. This shall happen only if they are given the proper awareness and such icons can truly play an influential role. Although campaigns and protests have been carried out by organisations like All-India Democratic Women’s Association in the most-affected states of Bihar, West-Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and the North-Eastern States,[xxvi] they have not been effective enough. The All Bodo Students Union had launched a campaign to spread awareness in Kokrajhar district of Assam in 2011.[xxvii] It is doubtful whether such campaigns in the light of utter illiteracy and lack of any medical help can really initiate any note-worthy change. The Free Legal Aid Committee in Jharkhand provide legal support to the victims, awareness and legal literacy through street-plays and publications, raising the issue at the legal and human rights fora and their efforts had prompted the state of Bihar to pass The Anti-Witch Hunting Act in 1999.[xxviii]

A cause of worry is the extremely low conviction rates of witch hunters. Official reports say from 2001 to 2014, 61 people have been victims of witch-hunts, including. Altogether 86 cases have been registered and chargesheets filed in 54 cases, but there has not been a single conviction yet. The perpetrators often get away because there it’s difficult to pin the blame since a group of people are acting in unison.[xxix] Due to the prevalence of fear regarding this practice, gathering any form of evidence is difficult. Lack of media attention can be attributed to the fact that silence of even the families of the victims is perpetuating this evil apart from the geographical factor of inaccessibility.[xxx] Police officials do not display the necessary stringency to deal with such cases and define it as a simple “law and order” problem. In most cases, registration of an FIR is accompanied by the demand of a sum of money, subjecting the victim woman to a state of helplessness.[xxxi] Politicians in most cases are involved. Political lobbies also use the ojha’s position to influence tribal communities.[xxxii] They exploit the belief system of ignorant villagers upon these ojahs for ulterior motives like usurping land, or settling other feuds, etc. Shashank Sinha, who is currently writing a book about the long-term history of witch-hunting in India states that-

“Earlier the prevalent idea was that a woman who was a witch was born as a witch. As in, it was hereditary as opposed to an acquired art. So the woman was killed directly and her family annihilated. Later, the perception changed and it was thought of as a craft that needs training. Now the idea has dispersed and it can refer to anything.”[xxxiii]

But the main challenge in the path of eradication of this evil is that the stimulus of this is often rooted in the spiritual, traditional beliefs that have seen manifestations since a long period of time. Uprooting such beliefs has their own challenges like opposition from the orthodox tribal communities and a dedicated approach on the part of the political powers or the influential sections of the society is needed.[xxxiv] The reverence of the illiterate villagers upon the ojahs is one of the main reasons behind the systematic persecution of women as witches for it is only with the ojah’s approval that a woman is branded as a witch and subsequently her fate is sealed when the village headman puts a stamp on it.[xxxv] It is only with a decline in the stature of the ojahs that one can expect a shift in the mindset of the people. Improving critical thinking is the key. Laws are okay but perceptions toward women and supernatural beliefs needs to change and only education, can initiate that change, for it is the foundation and an investment for the overall social and economic development. The Government of India has taken several steps for an inclusive education system in the country. In 1976, via 42nd amendment, education was brought under the concurrent list that obligated states to take steps in this regard. The continuing lack of access to formal justice system in these remote areas makes any powerful person, to mimic the voice of law for their vested interests.[xxxvi] The present scenario is grim in the sense that witch hunting even in the 21st century has refused to decline. With a hint of pessimism in her tone, Shubhra Dwivedy, chief executive of Seeds, a Jharkhand-based development organisation that focuses on girls and women states that-

“Witch hunting has been so deeply ingrained for generations, socially and culturally, that it can’t just be undone.”[xxxvii]

In Jharkhand where witch hunting is rampant due to the existence of dense forests and inaccessibility, this crime has rose to alarming proportions. Although law has been drafted to curb this evil, drawbacks are there for which there has been no decline in the official figures.  In the absence of a proper law in place, much hope regarding conviction of the culprits is not possible. They are only convicted under the archaic Indian Penal Code (1860) under sections 302 (punishment for murder), 320, 351, 354 (outraging a woman’s modesty), 364 (A), 503 and 506. Most witch-hunting cases are dealt under section 323 (hurt) of the IPC.[xxxviii] The punishment for “hurt” under section 323 is imprisonment that extends up to one year with a fine of Rs. 1000. Such mild punishments would hardly have any deterrent value. States like Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar already have their anti-witch-hunting legislations in place. Even states like Rajasthan and Orissa are also marching in this direction. In Assam, the police have decided to work with the Assam State Commission for Women to revive its Project Prahari which involves community policing to do away with witch-hunting.[xxxix]

A national law against witch-hunting and related senseless crimes is much needed and all policy-makers must discuss this subject with utmost sensitivity “without hurting the pride and sentiments of the local population” or creating a “tribal- non-tribal divide”[xl] and taking strident steps towards the protection of innocent lives. Onus must be upon the accused to prove the crime and not the victim. The need for a national law was felt long time back when senior advocate of The Supreme Court, Meenakshi Arora had filed a petition in 2010 that was rejected. In her words-

“Only three states have specific laws for witch hunting. Why not have a national legislation if the practice is prevalent in so many states? National legislation should be a deterrent. In fact, even the surrounding practices should be made an offence. Anyone who supports witch hunting or is a silent spectator should be punished as well.”[xli]

She had asked the apex court to direct Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Orissa, Bihar and Rajasthan to implement and monitor their anti-witchcraft Acts in “letter and spirit”. The Women and Child Development Ministry must issue certain guidelines that would help in the formulation of a national law. The Prevention and Protection of Witch Hunting Bill, 2013 is a recent development and the drafters of this bill must be lauded for this initiative. However, proper rounds of discussions must be taken before embarking on the process of making this the national law for detection of any lacunae. A separate fund must be allocated for the rehabilitation and welfare of the survivors for whom it is difficult to move back to their villages for the loom of fear. Counselling centres must be established at the district level to help these women face the trauma of social stigmatisation. The role of the Judiciary in the era of judicial activism has not been commendable in this regard. There are instances when the Supreme Court has called for an effective enforcement of state laws against witch hunts. While deciding on a case in 1991, the court asked the Bihar Government to form special cells to deal with the issue and draw up a census of widows owning property.[xlii] In the case of Sashiprava Bindhani vs. State Of Odisha (2001), the Orissa High Court had directed the state to enact a law that would be effective in dealing with such inhuman practices. The Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Bill, 2013 is the result of this direction of the court.[xliii] Other than this, the judiciary has failed to take any effective step and has narrowly confined itself to a disturbing limit. In Ashok Laxman Sohoni and Another vs. State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court rejected the defendant’s argument that his conviction should be overturned based on his genuine belief that the victim was a witch and was practicing sorcery. But in the case of Samtul Dhobi and Another vs. State of Bihar, the court had reduced the sentence of the accused based on his belief that the victim was a witch and the court agreed that the defendant based on his superstitious belief was morally justified in doing the act.

Conclusion

Witch-hunting is a remediable threat and for a country that has witnessed remarkable progress in all quarters in the development and empowerment of women cannot expect to increase its ranking in the gender development index if such crimes are not effectively dealt with. At the rudimentary level, mass awareness programs are required to initiate a change in the mindset of the people. It is only upon the awareness of the existence of such a law that these women would fearlessly knock the doors of justice. No amount of law shall ever yield positive results if the ignorance of the people is not eradicated.. It is only with the support of the people that such women can readjust themselves in the society and make an attempt to live life again. If this initiative is started with the establishment of more primary health centres in these remote regions at affordable rates, the results would be for all to see. This would deter them from blindly deposing faith in quacks. Lack of physical infrastructure like proper means of transportation prevents any attempt on the part of the women in reporting incidents. Rural access to police is a significant step to solve this menace. As of now, there exists no centralised system to rehabilitate the victims which is a heavy social consequence of witch-hunting. It is with sincere efforts on the part of the stakeholders in the inculcation of a scientific temper among the people that we can falsify the notion of “mysticism” and “myth” that the land of India is known as in the eyes of the “progressive” Western nations.

References 

[i] Dinesh Das and Minakshee Pathak (2012): “The Growing Rural-Urban Disparity in India: Some issues,” International Journal of Advancements in Research and Technology, Vol. 1, Issue 5, Viewed on 26 November, 2014. (https://www.academia.edu/2236837/The_Growing_Rural-Urban_Disparity_in_India_Some_Issues)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Dinesh Das and Minakshee Pathak (2012) , Note 1

[v] Shaffer, Ryan (2014): “Modern Witch-Hunting and Superstitious Murder in India”, Centre for Inquiry Affiliate, Vol. 38. Viewed on 26 November, 2014.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Navaneeta Rath (1996): “Women in Rural Society- A Quest for Development.” Viewed on 26 November, 2014. (https://books.google.co.in/books/about/Women_in_Rural_Society.html?id=5eM-7Nz-40UC&redir_esc=y)

[viii] Joya Chakraborty and Anjuman Borah (2013): “Witch hunting in Assam: Strategising Alternative Media for Women Empowerment and Overcoming Superstition,” Journal of North East India Studies, Vol. 3(2), (Jul.-Dec. 2013), pp. 15-24. Viewed on 4 June, 2014 (file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Ranjit/My%20Documents/Downloads/67-190-2-PB.pdf)

[ix] Ashwaq Masoodi (2014): “Witch-Hunting: Victims of Superstition”, Livemint, Viewed on  8 June, 2014 (https://beta.livemint.com/Politics/Nnluhl4wjhiAAUklQwDtOL/Witch-hunting–Victims-of-superstition.html)

[x] Shib Shankar Chatterjee, “Witch-Hunting in Northeast,” Uday India, Viewed on 2 June, 2014. (https://www.udayindia.org/english/content_15june2013/special-report.html)

[xi] Manogya Loiwal and Vikash Sharma (2014): “Witch hunting still claims lives in Assam,” India Today. Viewed on 8 June, 2014.

(https://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/witch-hunting-assam-family-members-burnt-to-death/1/350905.html)

[xii] Kaushik Deka (2011): “Rise of The Occult,” India Today, Viewed on 4 June, 2014.  (https://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/witch-hunt-and-black-magic-prevails-assam/1/157749.html)

[xiii] Deena Metzger (2009): “Witch Hunting- The dark Indian reality,” Viewed on 4 June, 2014.  (https://tikulicious.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/witch-hunting-the-dark-indian-reality/)

[xiv] C.J Naiduk, “Modern Day Witch Hunts in India,” Viewed on 4 June, 2014.  (https://cjnaiduk.hubpages.com/hub/witchhuntindia)

[xv] Shib Shankar Chatterjee, Note 10

[xvi] Deena Metzger (2009), Note 13.

[xvii] Joya Chakraborty and Anjuman Borah (2013), Note 8.

[xviii] Amelia Thompson DeVeaux,, (2011) “Witch hunts on the rise in rural India,” Care2, Viewed on 4 June, 2014.  (https://www.care2.com/causes/witch-hunts-on-the-rise-in-rural-india.html)

[xix] Soma Chaudhari (2012): “Women as Easy Scapegoats: Witchcraft Accusations and Women as Targets in Tea Plantations of India,” Violence against Women. Viewed on 6 June, 2014.

(https://vaw.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/chaudhuri_2012_scapegoats.pdf)

[xx] Anusua Mukherjee (2014): “The Prevalence of Witches,” The Telegraph, Viewed on 23 November, 2014.   (https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140204/jsp/opinion/story_17894432.jsp#.VHnp2NKUdOI)

[xxi] Soma Chaudhari (2013): “A curse in the family,” Aljazeera, Viewed on 8 June, 2014.   (https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2013/01/2013121101834161718.html)

[xxii] Raekha Prasad (2007): “Witch Hunt, The Guardian, Viewed on 4 June, 2014.  (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/mar/21/india.gender)

[xxiii] Soma Chaudhari (2013), Note 21.

[xxiv] Brinda Karat (2001): “Some Issues in the Struggle against Witch Hunting,” People’s Democracy, Vol. XXV, Issue No. 02. Viewed on 4 June, 2014.  (https://archives.peoplesdemocracy.in/2001/jan14/jan14_brinda.htm)

[xxv] Joya Chakraborty,and Anjuman Borah (2013), Note 8

[xxvi] T.K Rajalakshmi, (2000): “In the name of the witch,” Frontline, Vol. 17, Issue 23. Viewed on 4 June, 2014.   (https://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1723/17230870.htm)

[xxvii] Kaushik Deka (2011): “India Today- rise of the occult,” IndiaToday.in, Viewed on 6 July, 2014.  (https://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/witch-hunt-and-black-magic-prevails-assam/1/157749.html)

[xxviii] Raza Ahmed, (2011): “Witch-Hunting in Jharkhand: A Curse on the Society,” Viewed on 29 November, 2014. (https://razahmed2003.blog.com/2011/03/09/witch-hunting-in-jharkhand-a-curse-on-the-society/)

[xxix] Ibid

[xxx] Deena Metzger (2009), Note 13

[xxxi] Kelly Kislaya (2012): “Witch hunting menace haunts Jharkhand,” The Times of India. Viewed on 25 October, 2014.  (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ranchi/Witch-hunting-menace-haunts-Jharkhand/articleshow/17606459.cms)

[xxxii] Brinda Karat (2001), Note 24

[xxxiii] Ashwaq Masoodi (2014), Note 9

[xxxiv] (2011): “Devilry by the mob,” The Telegraph. Viewed on 9 August, 2014. (https://www.telegraphindia.com/1110622/jsp/opinion/story_14144168.jsp)

[xxxv] Puja Roy (1998): “Sanctioned violence: development and the persecution of women as witches in South Bihar,” Development in Practice, Vol. 8, No. 2. Viewed on 4 June, 2014 (https://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/Clinical-Programs/international-human-rights/upload/-1-Witch-Hunt-Brief-2.pdf)

[xxxvi] Anusua Mukherjee (2014), Note 20

[xxxvii] Raekha Prasad (2007), Note 22.

[xxxviii] Rashi Aditi Ghosh (2012): “In Rural India, it’s always the season of the witch,” Dna, Viewed on 16 October, 2014.  (https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-in-rural-india-its-always-the-season-of-the-witch-1755124)

[xxxix] “Cops Plan Steps to Curb Witch-Hunt,” Northeast Network, Viewed on 9 September, 2014.  (https://www.northeastnetwork.org/news/cops-plan-steps-curb-witch-hunt)

[xl] Puja Roy (1998), Note 35

[xli] Ashwaq Masoodi (2014), Note 33.

[xlii] Anusua Mukherjee (2014), Note 36

[xliii] (2013): “Bill on Witch Hunting gets approval of Assembly,” The New Indian Express. Viewed on 2 November, 2014.   (https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/Bill-on-Witch-Hunting-Gets-Approval-of-Assembly/2013/12/06/article1930831.ece)

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