Indian woman Chutni Devi, who was branded a witch and tortured by her mother-in law, sits inside her home in Jharkhand state in this August 2015 file photo. Many women are murdered after being accused of witchcraft. (Photo by Sindhuja Parthasarathy/AFP)
As India paraded its military power in New Delhi to mark the anniversary of becoming a modern republic on Jan. 26, police in an eastern village were busy fishing out the bodies of a woman and her four children from a well.
They were all victims of a pervading superstition — witch hunting — that disappeared centuries ago in Europe.
Late at night on Jan. 25, a group of men broke into the home of Mangri Munda while she and her two sons and two daughters — aged one, four, seven and 12 — were sleeping. They killed them with farm tools and dumped their bodies in a nearby well.
They believed Munda and her children were “casting spells” on other families in their tribal village in Sundergarh district of Odisha state, media said quoting police officers.
Villagers in poor and tribal-dominated areas often accuse women of sorcery and brand them as witches. They are then attacked and killed for a misfortune in the village such as the death of a child, a disease outbreak, bad weather or a poor harvest.
An average of 156 people, mostly women and children, are killed each year across India after being accused of witchcraft, according to government statistics.
Data from the federal National Crime Records Bureau, taken from police records, show that between 2000 and 2016 more than 2,500 people were killed in witch hunts.
Rights activists say the actual number could be much higher as many cases are not reported to police or are reported wrongly to save those involved.
Besides being murdered, women are also harassed and attacked in witch hunts, according to Rashmi Bhadrwaj, a women’s rights activist based in New Delhi.
“Women in villages are paraded naked, ridiculed, raped, forced to eat human waste and burned alive, with the government taking no action against the practice,” Bhadrwaj told ucanews.com.
Several Indian states have laws criminalizing superstitious activities such as black magic and witch hunts, but the country has no national laws against these practices.
Chhattisgarh state in 2005 enacted a law providing three-year jail terms for those who accuse a woman of being a witch and five years in prison for those causing physical harm to a woman by calling her a witch.
Similar laws exist in Bihar and Jharkhand states but governments lack serious implementation, according to Mohsin Ahmad, a women’s rights activist based in Uttar Pradesh.
“Unless exemplary punishment is meted out, the practice will continue. It is a social evil and we as a society need to rise to protect women attacked in this manner,” Mohsin said.
Bhadrwaj said the Indian Penal Code, established under colonial British rule in 1834, remains ill equipped to cover crimes related to superstitious practices such as witch hunts.
“The country continues to live with the myth that witches exist and under the garb of such ridiculous superstition, women are the worst victims,” Bhadrwaj told ucanews.com.
In June 2018, a mob killed an elderly couple before beheading one of them at a village in Jharkhand state’s Khunti district. Police say they were murdered on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.
Links with poverty, caste
Superstitions exist mostly in villages where people live in miserable poverty, according to psychologist Yasir Arafat in New Delhi.
Research he conducted on the correlation between poverty and superstition found that ill-educated poor people easily turn to black magic after misfortunes such as successive deaths in a family for reasons they could not understand.
“You can see the superstitions in poverty-ridden villages — the cities and towns are nearly free from such ills,” Arafat said.
Caste hierarchy and social status are linked to witch hunts and superstitions, according to research conducted by Shamsher Alam and Aditya Raj from the Central University of Jharkhand and Indian Institute of Technology Patna respectively.
The study published in 2018 showed that victims of witch hunts are usually women, mostly from socially poor castes or tribal people in caste-ridden societies.
“Witch hunting serves as a useful tool for political lobbies that use obscurantist sorcerers to influence communities,” the study said.
Witch hunting also works as a means to rob women, especially widows, of their property, to inflict punishment for turning down sexual advances or to even settle grudges with the women or their families.
The village shaman or ojha plays the crucial role of identifying witches. Police investigations “have revealed the dubious nature of ojhas” who accept bribes to name a particular woman as a witch, the research said.
Imitiyaz Hussan, a journalist in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said witch doctors play a very crucial role in crimes. “Once a person has been named as a witch and the accusation has been verified by the witch doctor, action against him or her is definite,” he said.
He said the first step in fighting such crimes is to “challenge witch doctors’ power and authority.” Other steps should focus on providing villagers with education, modern health care and the means to communicate and improve their economic status, he said.