This article titled ‘Witch-Hunting in India: the need for a central legislation’ is written by Trisha Singh and discusses the problem of witch-hunting in India and the need for legislation related to the same.
“Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it is someone else’s witch being hunted’’ -Walter Kirn
Since ancient times many practices have been followed in India like the dowry system, Sati pratha etc. Though, with the advent of political, economic and educational developments these evil practices have been eradicated to much extent because central legislations were formed in order to curb these inhuman acts yet, the practice of witch-hunting on the sole pretext of “Superstitious beliefs in witchcraft’’ is prevalent in many states of India. As a consequence of which many victims of atrocious witch-hunting have breathed their last.
The data of the year 2019 given by the National Crime Record Bureau stated that Jharkhand state holds 3rd position in witch-hunting cases and approx. 15 murders have taken place and Chhattisgarh was on the top list with 22 murders. People take the act of branding other women as a witch as a mode of their entertainment. This barbaric act can only be restricted by having central legislation.
II. Witchcraft and witch-hunting
The word witchcraft is formed by two words “wicce” and “craft’’. Wicce means witch and craft mean skill. Therefore, the word witchcraft refers to the belief and practice in superstitious magical abilities and the woman practising witchcraft is known as a witch or wizard. Witchcraft was practiced in ancient times by midwives who were accused and made to admit it by subjecting them to torture.
The witch hunt is a form of witchcraft belief and has been in society since the arrival of colonial Americans and Europeans which is now very much prevalent in India too. In fact, in witch-hunting, the women who are associated with witchcraft are looked upon in a negative sense with suspicion and are boycotted from the society socially and are often branded as a witch, Dayan, son eater, man-eater, bhootni and poisonous women by a society that includes community people, Ojhas, and thereafter raped, banished or paraded naked entire village or even forced to be balded, eat human excreta and involves immense verbal and physical abuse to women.
III. Origin of witch-hunting in India
In India, as the concept of witch hunt is ancient and has been in force for ages, therefore, this practice is still in force because of the patriarchal mindset of the society which brands women as witches. Dalit activities claim that the concept of a witch hunt is part of caste wickedness against the Dalit women and a very handy way to kill them.
The practice of witch hunt in India was found in the Assam (Morigaon district) famously called “the Indian capital of black magic’’ which is now prevalent in many other places like Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and Maharashtra.
The three stages of Witch-Hunting are as follows-
- Accusation – which means accusing the women of any harm that occurred to the individual or in the community such as the death of any human or animal, crop loss, disaster in the village or natural disaster.
- Declaration – it means to brand a woman as a witch possessing evil powers and boycott her from society socially.
- persecution – it means mental and physical torture to a woman that includes name-calling, psychological torture, social exclusion, lynching etc. Thus, persecution is performed by the strategic attempts encouraged by influential groups of society. This is the cause as to why accusing a Dalit woman of being a witch and simultaneously oppressing her is the handiest weapon of the Brahmanical patriarchal set-up in India.
1. Victims of witch-hunting
They are mainly Dalit women, single women, elderly women, widows, socially marginalized women who are branded as witches either because of their sorcerer look which includes hunchback, weird looks, weird physical features or out of personal grudges of the offender or desire to have sexual pleasure by socially exploiting the female by branding her a witch and taking advantage of her simultaneously or for some coveting property of such women by the perpetrator. In many cases, males have also been accused to have supernatural powers and had to suffer the consequences. Along with the victim women her entire family, children are also socially eradicated and are compelled either to leave the place or die.
2. Chronicle of witch-hunting
The atrocious trend of witch-hunting was very much common in Germany and Europe in the 13th century (1587) while in America in the early colonial period that is from 1450 to 1750. Hence, the witch trial known as Salem, which took place in the Salem village of Massachusetts in 1690 marked the embarkment of the atrocious practice of witch-hunting in America.
In England, three major acts were pronounced to punish witches under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In fact, King James I of England was a supporter of the witch hunt which ultimately led to the trial of the Pendle witches in the early 1600s. Agnes Waterhouse was the first woman to be executed for witchcraft in England in the popular trial of “The Chelmsford Witches’’.
In Europe, the “Trier witch trials’’ was the landmark trials in the European history in which around 368 people were executed which included respected citizens, judges and professors between the year 1581 and 1593.
IV. Types of witch-Hunting attacks
- Surprise witch-hunting attacks – these sorts of witch-hunting attacks take place without any prior dispute with the victim and the victim does not know causation before the attacks made by the offender. These types of witch-hunting are very dangerous.
- Calculated witch-hunting attacks – these sorts of witch-hunting is planned and are intentionally designed to fulfil the demand of the offender like unlawfully inherit the property, fulfil sexual pleasures, harassment and to take revenge.
V. Causes promoting witch-hunting
The causes behind promoting witch-hunting are as follows-
- Existing patriarchy -Brahmans often use various methods to keep the society under their control in rural areas and one of their methods is witch-hunting which terrorizes women and set the trend of witch-hunting. A Witch-hunting incident was found in the village of Jharkhand state where four Dalit women were brutally terrorized and were made to face public humiliations and rods were pierced in their bodies as a result, they died due to their branding “witches’’. These communitarian religious concerns, personal enmity, an orthodox mindset of patriarchy cause women to die till death. Though, the Dalit women have found an entry in legislative institutions, educational institutions, government jobs but have not got relief against gender violence acts such as witch-hunting.
- Existing Superstitious beliefs and ideologies – In India, people have the superstitious mindset that women can possess evil powers which they use to attack animals, humans, cause destruction to crops and acquire what is beyond the medical profession. They equate beliefs according to unscientific methods which leads to superstitions.
- Sexual advances and grabbing property – majorly the victims of witch hunts are single women who are either widows, poor women or childless women without any financial aid and these women have property rights that will be passed to her nearest male relative after death. So, in order to inherit land immediate women are accused as witches. Women are terrorized as witches by land mafias to have a share in her land as in August 2017 in Rajasthan Ajmer 40 years old Dalit woman was branded as a witch, beaten up brutally and made to eat human excreta in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.
- The lack of awareness – People in rural areas with no education facilities or minimum education facilities blame women for all the bad happenings when they are unable to provide concrete reasons due to their orthodox patriarchal mindset Refusal to have sexual intercourse by the women, poverty and lack of resources, the patriarchal mindset of people, conservative society, lack of medical facilities, social conflicts, jealousy are some of the valid causes which cause witch-hunting.
VI. Insufficiency of State-level legislations
- There are numerous state legislations dealing with witch-hunting that provides stringent punishment to perpetrators of a witch hunt but these state-level legislations are not sufficient to eradicate the atrocious act of witch-hunting as these legislations mainly focuses on the punishments for witch-hunting and not on the concept of eradicating it in totality. This is the reason why witch-hunting in India is not being eradicated completely.
- Witch-hunting and related superstitious beliefs lead to crimes that violate the fundamental articles such as Article 14, Articles 15(3) and 21 of the Indian Constitution and simultaneously violate several provisions of international legislations to which India is a signatory, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women, 1979 and International Covenant on civil and political rights, 1966.
- The Indian Penal Code only takes the cognizance of the crime after the murder has been committed as a result of witch-hunting and the mental trauma experienced by the victim is completely ignored. Therefore, the victims find it hard to get justice and often tend to withdraw the complaint letting perpetrators off the hook due to societal pressure because of the failure of state-level legislations in dealing with witch-hunting
VII. Central legislation is the need of the hour to eradicate the atrocious witch-hunting
- The movie ‘Kaala Sacch’ projected the real incident of Jharkhand wherein one Seeta Devi was accused of being a witch and she was pierced with needles as a punishment and even her husband was handicapped, still the accused were not convicted. This movie was the flagbearer to request the central government to enact a central law to eradicate witch-hunting.
- The national award-winning movie “Ishu’’ of a boy of 10 years, whose aunt was branded a witch. This film is based on the real incidents that take place in remote parts of Meghalaya and Assam where along with women men are also branded as witches and are killed. Furthermore, this movie also instigated the central government to form central law to curb this atrocious act.
- The Bollywood actress Rekha was also once trapped in the vicious act of witch-hunting in the year 1990 after the death of her husband, Mr. Mukesh Agarwal, a Delhi based businessman who committed suicide as he was clinically depressed for many years. The family of Mukesh blamed Rekha for Mukesh’s demise without any reason. There were headlines in the magazines as “How Rekha drove Mukesh to commit suicide’’ and “The Black Widow’’. These traumata made Rekha very much confined as she didn’t meet people or talked to the press for several months which pushed Rekha into a deep shell risking her carrier. But she made a grand comeback with the film Phool Bane Angaray, which was a super hit. But this incident completely changes Rekha as she was no more outspoken person and was now a recluse.
- The actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide case also the actress Rhea Chakraborty also went to similar distress of witch hunt as she was branded as Vishkanya, gold digger and the reason to push Sushant to death. She was hunted and attacked by the media, public in the prime-time bulletins until she was arrested in the drugs case. Both the Bollywood actresses faced a similar witch hunt which proves the mindset of society that they cannot digest women’s success, her outspoken attitude and being sexually independent. So, this is high time to have a central law to eradicate this vicious act.
- The state laws already in force are not sufficient to eradicate this cruel act from its roots. These state legislations related to witch-hunting only focuses on punishment but don’t respond to eradicate the evil superstitious and irrational beliefs as in many cases the accused are left unpunished because the hunts are portrayed as being the consequence of mob fury.
- The victims and people associated with witch hunts usually hesitate to report the cases related to witch hunting because of fear. The lack of evidence beyond doubt releases the offender of the act. Due to which the victims right to security, right to live a decent life, right to life against discrimination provided by the constitution and civil rights provided by international treaties are violated largely.
- In the year 2016, a bill related to the prevention of Witch-Hunting was introduced in Lok Sabha by Shri Raghav Lakhanpal but eventually never passed. There is an immense need for central law on this act because the present laws do not provide an effective mechanism as an aid to the victims to recover from the consequences of witch-hunting which includes economic and social boycott, forced displacement, expulsion from the workplace, residential place or village. Hence, there is an immense urgent need for a national law on witch-hunting.
Mangri Munda, a tribal woman in the year 2019 in Orissa along with her two daughters and two sons were murdered and dumped in a well close to their house. People believed her to be a witch. The main culprit in the case was the witch doctor (Budhram Munda). This case is the leading example in recent years where innocent women are accused as witches and are held responsible for illness spreading in the village or mishappenings or deaths of anybody. This is the utmost exploitation of women in Indian society.
In State of West Bengal v. Kali Singh and Ors., the High Court held that capital punishment in the cases of witch-hunting is not at all fruitful in eradicating this atrocious practice because this practice lies in the soul of men. Hence, the court while curtailing the death sentence to life of 7 accused men who were held guilty of killing 3 women as witch hunt held the state irresponsible in rendering its duty in imparting education in every corner of the country.
In Tula Devi & Ors. v. State of Jharkhand and Ors., in this case, about ten people armed with sticks entered the house of the deceased assaulted and abused her and used to call her “Dayan” for the past two years and threatened her simultaneously to leave the place. The husband of the deceased was also assaulted when he tried her to rescue which cause the woman mental torture. As some partition suit was also going, therefore, the women were accused as a witch to put pressure on them. But at last, the case was dismissed because of a lack of eye witness.
Indian society is on a road to experience advancement and had made many recommendable changes in the law to curb social exploitation but witch-hunting is a void that needs to be covered soon. The Indian Government must make a universal law banning the practice of witch-hunting which is the need of the hour and must set up organizations to deal with such acts expeditiously as a matter of concern to eradicate the exploitation at large of women. People can enjoy their civil liberties freely only when evils like witch-hunting are eradicated from society.
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- Witch Hunting is the worst form of human rights violation”
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- The Indian Express, Available Here (last visited Aug. 12, 2021)
- The Times of India, Available Here (last visited Aug. 10, 2021)
- State of West Bengal v. Kali Singh and others, MANU/WB/0926/2018
- Tula Devi & Ors. V state of Jharkhand and Ors., MANU/JH/0160/200
Author: Trisha Singh, Banasthali Vidyapith, Jaipur