By Ila Ananya
In Assam, two women, both related, were pushed into a well and buried alive on the night of 31 October. They were murdered after being branded as witches. According to one of the three men accused of the crime, their actions were justified because the women had "used black magic to infest with insects the well from which we drink water".
This news made us all do a double take: are women still being murdered because someone thought she was a witch, or decided to call her a witch? Depressingly, this isn’t a stray crime — according to these completely horrifying statistics, a 'witchcraft'-related death is reported almost every third day in India. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that 2,290 people — mostly women — were killed in India between 2001 and 2014 for witchcraft, and we can guess what these numbers have become in 2016.
But the lack of conversations around witch-hunting is also telling. We don't talk about this form of violence against women in the way we have finally come to heatedly discussing sexual violence in India. The Assam murders on Monday remains just a news report that people chanced upon Tuesday morning. It isn’t any different in other parts of the country that report a high rate of violence against women branded and persecuted as witches.
Earlier this year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had to issue a notice to the Rajasthan Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police, demanding a report on the action taken on cases where women have been victims of witch-hunts. This came after it took suo motu cognisance of the issue, suddenly realising that women like Mangi Devi in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan had not seen any justice after she was called a witch and attacked with red-hot iron rods in 2014.
But a witch-hunt goes far beyond hunting for so-called witches. Often, branding women as witches and using this compelling superstition to target them is a sinisterly easy way to get hold of their property, or money, or simply for revenge. In Bhilwara, where the family of a woman, stoned to death on this pretext in 2010, still hasn’t seen justice. Her son, explaining the hidden agenda, says his mother was killed by the 'upper' caste people she worked for when she asked for payment. He also says that this 'upper' caste family had been pressuring her to give up her land. Now, after her tarring and murder as a witch, they have usurped her property, he alleges.
A friend from Bihar tells me that when he was a teenager, he grew up seeing witch-hunts in areas like Madhuban, Bariarpur and Kharagpur. He remembers stories of women raped in the fields, and if they protested, they would sometimes be branded as witches to cover up the possibility of a police complaint. Sometimes, they would be murdered. Other times they were compelled into taking a kind of shame walk, where they were forced to admit to being witches; or the shuddhikaran, where they were coerced into drinking cow piss and eating human shit.
The matter-of-factness with which he tells these stories — stories that he says often make the front pages of local newspapers — is alarming. It is as though this threat of being branded a witch has become so normal for women in parts of India that no law seems to make a difference. Unbelievably, the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015 was passed as recently as in August last year, and in Rajasthan it was passed four months before that. Reports of women attacked after being branded witches, like the five killed in two weeks in Bhubaneshwar this September, or the one in Jharkhand who was stripped, beaten, and then gang-raped in June, or the woman who was publicly tortured in a Malda bazaar this February, seem to have come and gone with none of us responding.
So why is there this strange silence around violence against women in the form of witch-hunting? There is the unsettling sense that our way of looking at this sort of lynching is as though it is something exotic and unreal, perhaps as something that we once read about in history textbooks and forgot. Or is it that we just don’t want to think about it because it happens in places that we only occasionally talk about in our conversations on violence against women?
Every year, data about the huge number of reported cases of women killed in witch-hunts are released by the NCRB, and every year there are reports comparing these statistics among various States. In the midst of all this number crunching, we don’t seem to have even begun to talk about this horrendous crime in the way we have finally started to talk about other kinds of violence against women. There is an urgent need to open up these conversations, because without them there is no way of addressing it, and we cannot keep ignoring these women.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is an online women’s magazine