As police investigate the murder of a young woman in Giridih, this year’s witch-hunting toll in Jharkhand reached 12
A 30-year-old woman died in Jharkhand on Monday adding to the list of women who had suffered fatally due to the practice of witch-hunting in the state. Her’s was the twelfth death this year that was labelled ‘witch death’ – death of a woman suspected to be a witch – in the state police records.
While such a death may seem appalling in the urban areas of India, the Sub-Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) Navin Singh, in-charge of the case, said that ‘witch-deaths’ or even ‘witch-cases’ are a common occurrence in Jharkhand.
“We see a case of a witch-death and think it is a single-day event. In reality though, there may have been similar conflicts between the victim and the accused in the past,” said SDPO.
Accusations of someone being a witch are thrown around all the time which leads to such extreme cases.
“There is a great need for awareness in states like Jharkhand, Bihar. But the police cannot undertake such work,” he said.
Singh’s recommendation of raising awareness is also endorsed by local non-government organisations that work for the benefit of women.
One such organisation, the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiative (AALI) offers legal advocacy especially to victims of ‘witch-hunting’ and is working towards strengthening clauses of the Prevention of Witch (DAAIN) Practices Act (2001.)
Under this Act, calling someone a ‘witch’ or harming a person who has been identified as a ‘witch’ is a non-bailable offence as per Indian law. A person may legally sue any individual who calls them a ‘witch’ even out of spite.
The law even recognises and penalises social acts like ‘jhadphook’ or ‘totka’ that allegedly cure the woman termed as a witch.
However, as per a document provided by the State police, the Act has failed to provide preventative, curative or even punitive measures for these women.
Moreover, according to Reshma, AALI’s State co-ordinator, few people either know or care about this law.
“Locals here understand that killing is bad but not when it comes to killing a witch. At times, villagers even taunt the victim’s family by saying that the murder would only amount to a three-year jail term,” she said.
Any individual convicted of murder in India shall be penalised by life imprisonment.
Reshma described the practice of naming a woman a ‘witch’ as a means to control the female gender or as a means of getting revenge. She gave the example of four women who were killed a few years ago for conducting their own religious rituals.
Moreover, victims of such atrocities are almost always over the age of 40 years or widowed or have been left by their patriarch. This, further raises concerns regarding the killing on Monday.
AALI which deals with 13 districts of the State directly receives one or two cases monthly. However, all other cases come to them via news coverage. Reshma said that the problem with this process was that almost every case that came to them was on the extreme end wherein the woman has either died or is in critical condition.
“No one really likes to talk about the fact that they are termed as witches. So, we rarely ever receive a case directly,” said Reshma.
Yet such incidents keep occurring throughout the State especially during the rainy season.
Most women termed as witches are attacked because of a local superstition that witches cause diseases. As a result, the number of witch-deaths increase considerably during the monsoon season when people are more susceptible to cold and fever.
Even police reports show that in 2019 four cases were reported in July, two cases in August and six cases in September. Barring November and December that recorded four and five deaths respectively, hardly any deaths were recorded in the rest of the year.
However, unlike the State police which only records ‘witch-deaths’, AALI records all witch-related cases including deaths. As per their data, nearly 63 cases have been recorded in the last eight months.
In 2019, AALI published a report ‘Where There is No Road to Justice- “Witch” Hunting Related Violence against Women and The Law in Jharkhand’ the organisation found that cases of witch-hunting have increased among Scheduled Caste communities.
“Five years ago, I would have told you these cases were more prevalent in tribal areas. However, in the last three years such cases have increased in the SC community,” said Reshma.
Currently, a large number of such incidents are seen in the Singhbum area and among tribes like the Munda tribe. Most families leave the village after such an incident occurs.
Another observation made in the last three years was the treatment towards the victim’s family by the villagers.
Although a gender-specific crime on the surface, even the husbands of the women branded as ‘witches’ were killed in attacks.
“Children of such women are called “witch’s children.” You can imagine the trauma faced by the child in such a situation,” she said.
The children’s condition was no better earlier to this either. Last year, five women were killed on suspicion of being witches. One of the woman’s sons who was 16 years old at the time was forced by the villagers to beat his mother.
“The child cannot go against a crowd and has to follow the crowd’s orders. There is no government scheme for such children. They can avail CWC schemes at best,” said Reshma.
Another social cruelty faced by these women is social exile. Women named as ‘witches’ by the villagers are forced to leave the villages and live near the riverbank in a hut where no one will approach them.
Reinforcing what the police had said regarding awareness, Reshma stressed that social awareness contributes more towards addressing such social issues rather than increasing the State literacy.
“We see educated people as well who put a kaala teeka [black mark] on their child to ward off the evil eye. Education does not directly counter superstitions like these. It is definitely important for society’s betterment but awareness is key,” she said.
AALI’s workers conduct community meetings where they raise awareness about witch-hunting and trafficking. Reshma also suggests that such issues should be included in the school syllabus because such social practices serve as the core issues of Jharkhand.
“A child may be going to school but at the end of the day if the family believes in the idea of witches that is what the child will learn. These issues need to be addressed in a classroom environment by including it in their syllabus,” she said.
Courtesy Sabrang India