Another Woman Killed For Being A ‘Witch’: How This Horrid Hunt Still Continues In India
By Rohini Banerjee:
60-year old Restina Horo was hacked to death last week by her nephew in Jharkhand’s Khunti District — because he believed that she was performing ‘witchcraft’ and ‘black magic’ on him to affect his health. This, though disturbing, is not a stray occurrence in rural India. According to recent data from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), over 2000 women have been killed due to accusations of ‘practicing black magic’ in the past 14 years alone — a truly shocking reality indeed.
Modern Day Witch-Hunting In India: Why Does It Happen?
It’s been centuries since the Salem Witch Trials, but in India, the horror of witch-hunts are still not a thing of the past. In the state of Jharkhand alone — which records the highest number of witch-hunts — more than 464 women, mostly from tribal communities, have been branded ‘witches’ and killed in cold blood between 2001 to 2014. The North-East too, faces similarly frequent instances of women being brutally murdered, and many a times gangraped, because they are believed to be witches.
The biggest reason behind the existence of this very belief system is deep-rooted superstition, which is steeped in misogyny. Last year, a couple of journalists from Al Jazeera interviewed a number of women who have been branded ‘witches’ and explored their stories in depth. While these women described the torture, abuse and ostracism thrust upon them in brutal detail, they also spoke at length about the type of superstition which leads people to brand certain women as ‘witches’. The women targeted are usually either middle-aged or older, and are widows, living independently and without the protection of a man. When, by any coincidence, a family member’s illness or crop failure (and so on) occurs within close proximity of these women, they are the ones who get blamed. The society around them starts believing that because these women are alone, they will perform “black magic” and spell doom for the community. And then begins the witch-hunting — a communal rape or murder.
It is years and years of patriarchal conditioning, superstition, and lack of standardized education which teaches these people to be afraid of a woman who can have the means to be independent, to be on her own and without a man. Hence, things that are entirely outside their control — the spread of diseases, property disputes, natural disasters — are blamed upon these women and their “black magic”.
What Happens When You Are Hunted
The entire process of witch-hunting is truly mind-boggling. The allegations can be made by relatives, neighbors, and often (and most disturbingly) by shamans, or “ojhas”. These “ojhas” fancy themselves witch-hunters or some sort of exorcists — who can perform “white magic” to rid “witches” of their “dark magic”. But what they really do is exploit the superstition and misogyny of a society that’s already not very literate, feed their superstitions further, and extract monetary benefits out of it. Some ojhas carve the names of local women of a certain age onto the branches of a Sal tree. The branch that droops is believed to bear the name of the witch.
Once the accusation has been made, and the rumour spreads across the village, local men bearing pick-axes and sticks descend upon these women. The women who are lucky enough to escape alive from their assault are either ostracized in the worst possible manner, or are driven out of the village and forced to live in isolation.
What Is The Government Doing To Prevent This?
The government has tried to spread awareness in rural areas about the issue, and educate people in order to help them break out of their superstitions, but that hasn’t worked out very well. Various states have come up with strict legislations to punish witch-huntings, but the problem lies in the fact that many of these cases go unreported. And even when they are reported, local officials are often complicit in the act because they too are mired in the same superstition.
Further, the tribal communities — where such killings have been maximum in number — are miles away from mainstream social settlements in states like Jharkhand. With low literacy, child malnutrition and maternal mortality, they have often found themselves sandwiched between government apathy and Maoist insurgency, both contributing to their consistent neglect by successive governments.
The government, in various states, have been generally unsuccessful in enforcing their anti-witch-hunt legislations and have failed to integrate rural communities into spreading the kind of awareness and education that is required. The superstition and patriarchal conditioning is so deep that it’ll take stronger initiatives to be entirely defeated.
Witch-hunting is an evil that should have been dismantled ages ago, but is growing steadily more potent in rural India. Though there are cases like that of Goalpura village’s Birubala Rabha- of individuals trying to fight witch hunters, there is still not enough action being taken through official channels. There needs to be more conversations about it, more literacy, and stronger measures to protect the women suffering from such abuse and give them a safe and free space of their own. A modernized India shouldn’t just aim at technological advancement, but also the killing of these ridiculous misogynist superstitions.
Image Source: Getty
Rohini Banerjee is a Features Writer for YouthkiAwaaz and Cake. She is YKA’s resident pop culture nerd and likes feminist rants and modernist poetry.