This article is written by Nidhi Bajaj.
“If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere”
Several evil practices have been followed in India from antiquity including sati pratha, dowry system etc. With the development of both economical and educational, we have been able to eradicate many of such evil practices. Yet the practice of witch hunting is still prevalent in many states of the country owing to the superstitious beliefs of people. Many people in the past have been tortured and executed because of the belief in the malevolent witchcraft. Even the great Joan of Arc, who led France to victory against the British, was burnt alive at the age of 19 on being accused of witchcraft. The reports of National Crime Bureau 2015 report that 2290 women branded as witches were hunted in India between 2001 and 2014.
Meaning of Witchcraft and Witch hunting
The word ‘witchcraft’ is made up of two words ‘wicce’ and ‘craft’. ‘Wicce’ has originated from ‘wicca’ which means ‘witch’ and ‘craeft’ refers to ‘skill or ability’. Witchcraft is the practice and belief in magical abilities and the one who professes witchcraft is called a witch or wizard. In the past, midwives were accused of witchcraft and were made to admit it by subjecting them to torture. As the word is used in a negative sense, the people associated with witchcraft are looked at with suspicion and are socially less acceptable. On the other hand, witch hunting is the wicked practice where the women alleged of causing detrimental influences are branded as witches by Ojhas (witch doctors/tantriks) or community people and are thereafter hounded, banished, flogged, raped, paraded naked through the village, forced to eat human excreta, balded, thrashed etc. The women accused of being witches are called by various names like dayan, tonahi, beta khauki (son eater), adam khauki (man eater), bhaikhauki (brothereater), maradmuhi, kheldi (characterless), bisahin (poisonous woman), bhootni, Dakan etc. Thus, witch hunting involves both physical and verbal abuse.
History of Witch Hunting
The atrocious witch hunting attacks were common in Europe in the 13th century, Germany in 1587 and in America in the early modern period from 1450 to 1750.
- England: In England, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, three major acts were enacted to punish witches. A woman named Agnes Waterhouse was the first person to be executed in England for witchcraft in the famous trial of ‘The Chelmsford Witches’. King James I of England supported witch hunts which led to the trial of ‘The Pendle Witches’ in early 1600s.
- Europe: ‘Trier Witch Trials’ was the largest witch trials in European history. Over 368 people were executed between 1581 and 1593 which included respected citizens, professors, judges etc.
- America: ‘The Salem Witch Trials’ that took place in the Salem village of Massachusetts in 1690 marked the beginning of this practice in America. Many executions took place during this trial.
Origin of Witch Hunting in India
The exact date of origin of witch hunting in India is not known. The practice is said to have emanated hundreds of years ago in the Morigaon district of Assam which is famously called ‘The Indian capital of black magic’ and is the abode of people who want to learn witchcraft. The practice is a customary one in India and is prevalent in rural isolated areas especially among the tribal population. The incidents of witch hunting are prominent in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Who are the victims?
The victims of the witch hunting are in most cases elderly women, widows who are branded as witches because of their physical features-hunchback, weird hair or skin colour. In a few cases even men have been accused of having supernatural powers and are made to suffer the consequences. The family and children of the woman who is branded as witch also suffer as they are usually socially outcasted and are forced to leave the village or in worse cases killed.
Types of witch hunting attacks
- Calculated Attacks: These are the planned attacks designed to fullfill some particular object inculding unlawfully grabbing property, sexual harassment and for taking revenge.
- Surprise Attacks: These attacks happen without any prior conflict and the victim has no knowledge of the accusation prior to these attacks. Surprise attacks are more violent than the calculated ones.
Countries where witch hunting is still prevalent
The countries where this practice is still prevalent involve Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Gambia, Nepal, India, Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Mexico, South Africa, Chile, West Indies.
Cases of Witch hunting
- In Tanzania, 400 people were killed in witch hunts in 2016.
- In India, 2097 murders were committed with the motive of witch hunting between 2000-2012.
- In Jharkhand, the anti-witch hunting law was passed in 2001. But in 2015, 5 women were brutally murdered after being attacked by a mob on accusation of witchcraft.
- In Orissa, 99 cases of witch hunting were reported in 2017, 83 in 2016 and 58 in 2015.
- In Assam, 114 women and 79 men were branded as witches and thereafter killed and 202 such cases have been registered between 2001-2017.
Why is Witch hunting still thriving?
- Superstitious beliefs-People believe that witches have magical powers which they use to attack humans, destroy crops, cause harm to animals, influence body and mind of others and to gain what is beyond the medical profession.
- Lack of knowledge-People in far flung isolated areas with minimum or no educational facilities or the old illiterate people of villages blame women for the bad happenings when they fail to explain the reason behind them.
- Lack of resources, Poverty, refusal to have sexual intercourse.
- Gullible, conservative society, Patriarchy, financial disputes, personal and social conflicts, jealousy, property disputes, lack of medical facilities and ignorance are the other reasons behind witch hunting.
Legislations on Witch Hunting
There are numerous laws in force at international, national level and in various states which provide stringent punishment to the perpetrators of witch hunting and the related practices.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article-1, 3, 5, 12, 13, 17(2), 19
International Covenant on Civil and Political rights
Article 6(1), 7, 9(1), 10, 17, 18(2)
Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Article 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11
Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women
Article 2(e), 2(f), 3, 5(a), 14(f), 15(4)
- Constitution of India- Article 14, 15(3), 15(4), 21, 51, 51A(h).
- Drugs and Magic Remedies (objectionable advertisements) Act, 1954.
- Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.
- Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes(prevention of atrocities) Act 1989.
- Indian Penal Code- Section 302 (Murder), Sec 299 (Culpable homicide), Sec 354 (Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), Sec 375 (Rape).
State level Instruments
- The Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 1999- Bihar.
- The Prevention of Witch (Daain)Practices Act, 2001- Jharkhand.
- Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act, 2005.
- The Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2013.
- The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori practices and black magic Act, 2013.
- The Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil practices and black magic Act, 2017.
- The Rajasthan Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2015.
- The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection Act) 2015.
Need for Central legislation
- Before the enactment of the state level legislations on prevention of witch hunting, there were no strict laws on the subject and the accused were tried under Indian Penal Code Section 323, 354, 509 and the brutal acts of stoning, tonsuring were treated as simple hurt.
- In 2015, a movie ‘Kala Sacch’ was released based on a real incident in Jharkhand wherein one Seeta Devi was accused of being a witch and as a punishment her body was pierced with needles, her husband was made handi-capped but the accused were not convicted. The movie was an initiative to request the Central Government to enact a central legislation on the subject.
- Besides, the laws already in force are insufficient as they focus on punishment mechanism but don’t respond to the need of eradicating the irrational and evil superstitious beliefs. The ways of reporting cases are also limited and the emergent needs of the victims and survivors are not tended to. In many cases the accused(usually powerful males of the village)are left unpunished because the attacks are portrayed as being a result of mob fury.
- The victims or other people usually don’t come forward to report it due to fear or their acceptance of the practice. Lack of evidence leads to release of the perpetrators. The practice of witch hunting violates civil rights provided by International treaties and the Constitution including right to security, right to life right against discrimination and right to live a decent life and other fundamental rights.
- The Prevention of Witch Hunting Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in 2016 by Shri Raghav Lakhanpal but was never passed. Present laws do not provide an effective mechanism to help the victims to recover from the consequences of witch hunting including forced displacement, expulsion from the village, social and economic boycott etc. Hence there is a dire need for a national level legislation to eradicate this evil altogether.
Tula Devi and others v. State of Jharkhand
In this case, about 10 people armed with sticks entered the house of the complainant and abused and assaulted her. They used to call her and address her as Dayan for the last 2 years and threatened her to leave the place. Her husband tried to rescue her but he was also assaulted. This caused the women mental agony. Some partition suit was also going on and the woman was accused of being a witch to put pressure on them. However, the case was dismissed on the ground of lack of eye witness.
Madhu Munda v. State of Bihar
In this case, a mother was dragged out of the house by some people. She was reported to be missing. FIR was filed. 8 days later mother was found and said that those people threw her in a ditch where she fell unconscious. On regaining consciousness she went to her brother’s house. In this case also the accused was not convicted due to the unreliable testimony of the witness.
State of West Bengal v. Kali Singh and others
In this case, the Calcutta High Court observed that judicial execution in the cases of witch hunting does not help in eradicating this evil because it has its root in the psyche of men. The Court while commuting to life the death sentence of 7 men guilty of killing 3 women believing them to be witches held the state irresponsible in discharging its duty of providing education in every nook and corner of the country.
- Perhaps the most famous person to have raised his voice against superstition is Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian medical doctor, social activist, rationalist who was the Founder and President of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti(MANS) in 1989. He was committed to eradicate superstition in Maharashtra and under his supervision the MANS framed the Anti-Jadu Tona Bill but it was opposed by some political parties and he was murdered on 20 August, 2013. After his death the bill was considered again and was passed in December, 2013.
- ‘Centre for Social Justice’ is an organization fighting for women’s rights and the rights of marginalised people such as Adivasi women who are attacked in witch hunts in Gujarat.
- Birubala Rabha is another social activist credited for putting pressure on the Assam government to enact one of the countries strictest anti-witch hunting laws.
- Edamaruku’s organization, the Indian Rationalist Association tries to eradicate this practice by scientific means.
- Partners for Law in Development (1998) is another organisation working for women’s rights.
- The orgnisation ‘Anandi’ works for the rehabilitation of survivors of witch hunting.
In January, 2019(Orissa) Mangri Munda, a tribal woman along with her two sons and two daughters were murdered and their bodies were dumped in a well close to their house. People believed her to be a witch capable of doing black magic. The main accused in the case was Budhram Munda who was the witch doctor. People thought that she was responsible for a long-running sickness in the accused family.
The case of Mangri Munda is only one example among the many where innocent women are accused of being witches and are held responsible for the deaths of children, illness spreading in the village and other mishappenings.
The practice of witch-hunting is a blot on our present day society. Today right to privacy, reputation and internet have been declared as our fundamental rights. The country is walking on the path of advancement but still the basic right to a decent life is denied to people in many parts of our country. Criminalising superstitious practices is just one dimension of the problem. The State needs to take effective measures to eradicate poverty, ensure better living standards, public health, educational facilities, infrastructural facilities in the isolated areas and villages. Organization should be established to deal with such cases expeditiously and in a delicate manner as a matter of priority. An effective central legislation banning the practice of witch hunting with a strong enforcement mechanism is the need of the hour. It is only when evils like witch hunting are eradicated from the society that the complete enjoyment of civil liberties by people can become a reality.
- Crime in India 2012 Statistics, Ntionl Crime Bureau- http://ncrb.nic.in/CD-CII2012/Statistics2012.pdf
- The Academic Journey of Witchcraft Studies in India
- Times of India –Article on Witch Hunting, July 17, 2018
- Blogscc.online. Com –“Witch Hunting is the worst form of human rights violation”
- Indiatoday.in(Over 2000 women killed in India for practicing black magic in 14 years)
- Contemporary Practices of Witch hunting-a report on Social trend and the interface with law, 2013
- Ancient Origins.net(Articles on Witch Hunt)
- Rakesh k. Singh, “Witch Hunting:Alive and Kicking”
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