The 'witches' of Jharkhand: From ignorance to land grabs, what fuels witchcraft in the mineral-rich state

  • Four elderly people, including two women were allegedly lynched by a group of men in Jharkhand's Gumla district on Saturday night, on the suspicion of practising witchcraft

  • Most incidents of witch-hunting in the state occur due to property disputes and attempts at land grabbing

  • In areas where superstition and irrational beliefs are rampant, almost every untimely death triggers a hunt for women who practice 'witchcraft'

Four elderly people, including two women were allegedly lynched by a group of men in Jharkhand's Gumla district on Saturday night, on the suspicion of practicing witchcraft. According to the police, a group of 10 masked men dragged the victims from their homes to the akhara of Nagar Siskari village and beat them to death with sticks.

The incident once again highlights the trend of 'witch hunts' in the state — that once held the record for the highest number of such cases. A report in the The Asian Age states that the gruesome crimes often take place after a person, usually a woman, has been branded as a 'witch' by the local witch doctor. Once branded a witch, the woman is subjected to various forms of torture, often raped, paraded and then brutally killed. These women and often times their entire families are ostracised by the villagers.

 The witches of Jharkhand: From ignorance to land grabs, what fuels witchcraft in the mineral-rich state

File image of protests against witch-hunting in Jharkhand. Image credit: Kelly Kislaya

The reasons behind these incidents are manifold, say political leaders and social activists. These include land disputes, lack of healthcare facilities, superstition and illiteracy. Complex social relations in the predominantly tribal state as well as weak implementation of preventive laws act as contributing factors.

Land grab and property disputes

According to a report, Ajay Jaiswal, secretary of the Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA), a social welfare organisation, said that most incidents of witch-hunting occur due to property disputes and attempts at land grabbing. He cited a case in the Namkom district where rumours about a woman being a witch were spread by a local land dealer, who wanted to take control of the several acres of land owned by the family. This, says Jaiswal, led villagers to blame the woman's family every time an accident occurred on the nearby Ring Road.

Sanjay Mishra, head of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), said that a survey carried out by his organisation in 10 villages of Jharkhand found that every village has at least 10 witches. These 'witches' usually happen to be widows living alone on their properties, he said.

Superstition and lack of healthcare

Diseases and deaths due to illnesses also become triggers for such witch-hunting, say reports. In areas where superstition and irrational beliefs are rampant, almost every untimely death triggers a hunt for women who practice 'witchcraft'. Social activist Xavier Dias told The Hindu that whenever new diseases afflict either cattle or humans and prove to be beyond the comprehension of local villagers, they "look for witches to kill so as to propitiate the spirits". Echoing these views, Mishra says that  locals approach witch doctors instead of medical practitioners when someone falls ill. "When the witch doctor fails to cure the person, he accuses the most vulnerable woman in the village of practicing witchcraft," said Mishra.

The report in The Hindu carries reference to a case in Tapkara where a woman was bludgeoned to death by her brother-in-law for the death of his father. Similar such incidents have often been reported across the state.

Weak law, poor implementation

In the absence of literacy and awareness regarding the Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001 , the crimes continue unabated. Sampat Meena, Inspector General of the Criminal Investigation Department told The Hindu, “Villagers are ignorant that witchcraft is a punishable crime.”

Jaiswal was of the opinion that the provisions for punishment under the law are very weak. "The punishment for branding a woman a witch and getting her treated by a witch doctor under the Act is only an imprisonment of three months to one year and a fine of Rs 2,000. This is not enough. We need a stricter law in order to curb this practice," he said.

“It’s a kind of social acceptability of a wrong practice which makes it difficult to stop it. Often there is no evidence and culprits go scot-free,” Amit Khare, Principal Secretary of Planning and Finance, Jharkhand told The Hindu. Families of victims often do not report cases due to fear of backlash and continuing ostracism.

Complex social relations

While property disputes, superstition and disease related death continue to be powerful reason behind incidents of witch-hunting, personal vendetta and social backlash are also factors. Father PM Anthony, research coordinator at Tribal Research and Training Centre, Singhbhum told The Asian Age, “In most of the cases villagers use witchcraft as a tool to settle personal enmity”.The report in The Hindu suggests that women who dare to speak out are often targetted in cases of witch hunting. It examines incidents from Kankia Marhatola village  to argue that when  strong-willed women challenge the patriarchal status quo, resentment simmers against them and and ultimately results in witch-hunting.

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2019 18:15:52 IST