In Jharkhand’s tribal areas, toothless laws against ‘witch hunting’ hand land mafias tool to target female landowners

"The biggest reason for branding a woman a witch is land grabbing," said Sanjay Mishra, a social activist in Jharkhand who has worked closely with victims of witch hunting.

Editor's note:  A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Election on the Go, over a course of 100 days. 

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Ranchi: In the eyes of Kochbong village residents in Jharkhand's Ranchi, a woman in her early thirties is the reason behind every road accident that occurs on the Ring Road near Namkum block in the district.

Savitri Munda was branded a dayan (witch) a few years ago by the village residents and her entire family was accused of practising witchcraft. Now Savitri lives in the constant fear of being attacked by the villagers, every time an unfortunate event occurs in her village.

Economically and infrastructurally, Kochbong is one of the better off villages in this constituency. Situated next to National Highway 43, and merely 20 kilometres away from Jharkhand's capital, it has access to pucca roads, there are toilets in every home, and the village even has a school. Superstition, however, is its bane. Not just Savitri, two other women in the village of approximately 250 households have been declared witches. All three are haunted every day by the fear of a painful death.

"The thought that I or my family can be attacked any minute always haunts me,” says Savitri. "Though the intervention of a social organisation did reduce the torture, my husband underwent such mental trauma that he had to be admitted at RINPAS (Ranchi Institute of Neuro-Psychiatry & Allied Sciences)."

Savitri is convinced that this campaign to brand her a witch is a ploy by her relatives to grab her 13 acres of land. "I got to know that they have already finalised a deal with the land mafias and are trying to get me thrown out of the village so they can sell the land."

Nauri Devi, 42, who too has substantial land holdings, has a similar tale to tell. Branded a witch, her two teenage children face the wrath of the villagers. Even at school, Nauri's children are called names like dayan ka baccha (witch's child), and harassed. "When things go bad, they avoid going to school."

A third woman branded a witch in this village, Bina Devi, a 35-year old widow, could not be traced.

An old woman sits in front of her house in Kochbong village on a winter afternoon

Most women who are branded a witch are either old, widowed, or living alone, and own a substantial piece of land in their name. Activists say, these women become easy targets for land mafias, who instigate the villagers against them to eventually capture their lands.

Numbers speak louder than screams

The horrors of women being tortured and killed under the pretext that they were witches have haunted the Jharkhand countryside for years. Yet, such cases hit the national headlines only when a particularly brutal killing takes place, like the murder and quiet burial of a couple in their 50s in Rampur village of Namkum block in May 2018, for which 11 people were arrested. The case is still in court.

In an earlier incident in August 2015, five women were brutally killed for allegedly practising witchcraft at Kanjia Marai village in Mandar block. The police had been quick to crack down and 13 people were awarded rigorous life imprisonment and fined of Rs. 38,000 each by a lower court in Ranchi in August of last year. However, not all cases of torture and harassment are reported, and only few see justice being delivered.

Just how prevalent this practice is in the state is revealed by data of the National Crime Records Bureau, which shows that since its formation on 15 November, 2000, the state has always been among the top three in the country when it comes to the murder of women branded as witches. It has the unique record of leading in this horrific practice during 2013-2016.

In Ranchi district alone, 13 'witches' were killed in the past three years; four in 2018, three in 2017 and six in 2016, according to the monthly crime statistics of Jharkhand police. The number during the same period across the state’s 24 districts was 94. The combined data of NCRB and Jharkhand police reveals that 590 persons have been lynched in Jharkhand for allegedly practising witchcraft during 2001-2018.

Women's rights activists say that death may even be a mercy to these women, given the everyday torture they are subjected to, which often go unreported. "They are beaten up, stripped naked and paraded across the village. Sometimes their heads are shaved off or they are even forced to eat faeces,” said Ajay Jaiswal,  secretary, Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA), a social organisation working to end such practices.

Talking about the cases in Ranchi district specifically, senior superintendent of police (SSP), Ranchi, Anish Gupta admits that there have been some shocking cases of witch hunting in the district. "We shortlist police stations areas under which incidents have been reported in the past or where there is an intelligence report regarding happening of such activities," said Gupta. “In such cases, the culprits are identified and an FIR is lodged. We ensure proper investigation and timely disposal. Officers in charge of such police stations have been sensitized to take up such cases seriously and encourage victims to file FIR."

However, merely lodging an FIR does not guarantee justice, even if the victim goes out and report the atrocity faced by her. An entire community of residents against one woman cannot be brought to justice with an ineffective law.

The state has brought in Prevention of Witch (daain) Practices Act, 2001 to specifically tackle the issue. However, the Act remains toothless with provision for minimal jail term and an inconsequential financial penalty.  The Act, on paper, states that someone harming a person by identifying them as a witch are liable to face action under the law. It also outlaws anyone branding a person a witch or dayan. However, the punishment remains a small fine of Rs 1,000-2,000 or imprisonment of three months to one year.

The government also says it has taken a number of steps at both state and district level to eradicate the practice of witch hunting. The administration claims it has incorporated preventive measures like including chapters on awareness against witch hunting in government school textbooks, running awareness campaigns and starting a dialogue at the panchayat level.

Talking about preventive measures, secretary of state department of women, child development and social securities, Amitabh Kaushal said, "There are two types of preventive measures, one being action under the law and second, creating awareness. Regular Nukkad Nataks (street plays) and seminars are organised at the district and village level. District level strategies are tailor-made, based on local needs and affected areas." These include interaction at panchayat level with police along with audio-visual presentations.

However, activists working relentlessly in the region say these efforts barely see any effect on the ground level as the orthodoxy remains deeply entrenched among Jharkhand’s tribals.

Karmu Munda, a resident of Kochbong village and member, Panchayat Samiti in Lalkhatanga, said Dayan Pratha has been going on since ages. "Any unfortunate event happens in the village and a dayan is blamed for it," said Karmu. "If someone falls sick, instead of going to a doctor, villagers go to a witch doctor who convinces them that someone in the village who practices witchcraft is responsible for it. But now that people know they can be fined or imprisoned for attacking someone in the name of witch hunting. So, instead of attacking directly, the people now resort to indirect harassment, and mental torture."

Talking to villagers, it becomes obvious that long-held beliefs are not given up easily. As Antu Munda, a 60-year-old villager said, "If I believe in god and priests then why should I not believe in devil and witches." Meena Kacchap, a young mother in her 20s said, "I don’t know about Dayan but I do believe that sometimes what people say comes true. Once, I was not talking to a woman in the village and she cursed me that as I don't spend much time with her because I have to take care of my child, something would happen to my baby. The same evening my child started crying inconsolably, I was scared."

A toxic mix of superstition, land grabs and TV serials

"The biggest reason for branding a woman a witch is land grabbing," said Sanjay Mishra, a social activist who has worked closely with victims of witch hunting. "Most such victims are either old women, widowed, are living alone and own substantial land. These women become easy targets for the land mafia, who start provoking villagers against her." Mishra added that such cases are more prevalent in tribal-dominated areas like Mandar, Chanho and Namkum on the outskirts of Ranchi. "They happen less often in mixed population areas."

Hindi TV serials which portray witches and demons only tend to reinforce these superstitions. Discussing these serials is common among village women when they gather after the day’s chores are done. Said Meena Kacchap, "It happens. That is why they show it on TV otherwise why would they?"

"We will be filing a PIL in Jharkhand High Court against such TV serials which spread superstition," said Ajay Jaiswal of ASHA. "While people living in cities can understand the difference between reality and fiction, villagers watching such serials start believing that such things exist."

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The government apathy is further highlighted by the fact that in Kochbong, people don’t even recognise the local MP and MLA. With general elections around the corner, Jaiswal of ASHA hopes that the new crop of people’s representatives will seriously take up social issues. Jaiswal says ASHA centre has been operating in the village for 15 years, and while the local MP had even visited their centre once, they are not too keen to talk about social issues like witch hunting, child marriage, human trafficking and other such issues.

The government only focuses on tangible things, like roads and schools that can be "seen." "They should care about what happens in people's homes as well. Yes, roads and other things are important but what use are they if the social fabric is damaged and families are being torn apart. Their outlook should be to link such social evils to policy and bring them to an end." Another resident, Robin Amit Topo also agrees. He says that the political leaders don't even talk about social issues like witch hunting. "They like to say they have brought roads to the village and some people have got toilets but they don't think about how to bring people together."

The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.


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