I once saw a photograph on the front page of a newspaper that I could never get off my mind. There was a man of about 25, with four severed heads, two in each hand and he held them by their hair. The caption below said that he was making his way to the police station, and that the heads belonged to a family of ‘witches’ who had been punished by the whole village for practicing sorcery.
The picture was gruesome, and even scarier was the look of utter satisfaction and bravado in the face of that man, like a hero, a rescuer, a giver of justice. The incident happened in an interior village of Assam. And sadly, that was not the first incident , nor was it to be the last. Even today, when there is a part of the country discussing about technology and space, there still remain interior regions where witch hunts are not uncommon occurrences, where women are publicly beaten, their heads shaved off, gang raped or paraded naked in the village….all because they happen to be all powerful witches who had wrecked havoc in the village.
Today, the practice of witch hunting is present in about half a dozen states in the country, and these are generally the regions located in central and eastern India. It generally happens in places where there is almost no economic development, with little or no access to basic education and health care. In this kind of an atmosphere, people tend to develop very strong superstitious beliefs. And anything bad that might befall these villagers like bad crop, diseases, sudden and unexplained death of someone in the family, or drying of well tend to be considered the work of some evil ‘witch’. Thus begins a witch hunt to locate the person responsible.
It has been seen that nine times out of ten, it is a women who is branded a witch. The reasons for this are socio-economic. Mostly these witch hunts are just a ploy to grab land and property, sometimes even to settle any grouse that some person with a say in village politics might nurse against that woman. Or they may be directed as punishment for turning down sexual advances. The people who are at biggest risk of being labeled witches are generally single women or old couples with land. In a majority of cases, the women have to suffer silently as most are unable to reach out for help, given the lack of education and poverty. The result is that they either have to flee the village leaving their house and land behind, or be subjected to humiliation, insult, torture and in many cases, death at the hands of the villagers.
It is very depressing that in India, only a handful of states have laws against witch-hunting. Witch hunting in most cases constitutes an attempt to murder. But because of lack of laws that specifically targets this practice; the people involved with witch hunting are booked under article 323 of the Indian Penal Code. This is means that the law now equates the crime of witch hunting with crimes where a person tries to voluntary cause hurt like slapping or physically abusing somebody. Under this law, the maximum punishment for this offense is a jail term up to one year and a fine of 1,000 rupees.
Non Governmental Organizations like Free Legal Aid Committee have done a lot in order to bring about an end to the practice of witch hunting. However, until and unless there are strict laws devised that aim directly at the crime of witch hunting, even they will not be able to do much. Another very shocking fact related to this practice is that even after the media coverage of incidents of witch hunting, and the growing awareness of such practices in the ‘more developed’ part of the society, the conviction rate for crimes related with witch hunting is below 2 per cent, according to a study by FLAC.
The only solution to this problem would be to educate the people and also to frame laws for the protection of women and people belonging to the ‘lower’ classes of the society who also constitute another target group of such witch hunts. Until then, superstitious beliefs in the existence of black magic and ‘dians’ will prevail along with the prevalence of tribal doctors or ‘ojhas’ who have a very big influence in village life, and more often than not take advantage of or hoodwink the gullible villagers.
And as for the young man I had mentioned in the beginning of the article, I am sure he had a very eventful life and lived to successfully lead many others witch hunts.