What is witch hunting?
Witch hunting is not a concept of the past, it’s greatly alive today in rural parts of India. In today’s scenario, witch hunting, women are tortured, robbed, and killed for being labelled as a witch.
Despite being a nefarious practice of the first modern period, India is deplorably one amongst the few countries round the world that also witnesses horrid cases of witch hunting. Women are beaten, tortured, burned, raped, and murdered, dead the name of witch-hunts. On July 20th, 2019, four aged people including two women were accused of engaging in witchcraft and lynched by an army of goons in Gumla, a small district of Jharkhand.
Murders associated with “witchcraft or witch hunting” are on the increase in Orissa, despite an act which bans witch hunts. Nine people got executed last year for murdering three members of a family who were accused of being witches. Women are frequently targeted within the states of Assam and Jharkhand for similar reasons.
Three bold women in Gujrat residing with an NGO narrated their heart-wrenching story in 2017 of how they were alleged to be withes and thrown out of their home simply because they have confronted some men in order to abstain them from defecating their lands on which they were growing food crops. Other states that continually report cases of witch-hunt are Chhattisgarh, Assam, Orisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Maharashtra. Data stating facts that one woman in India is killed each day because of this crime.
Background of witch hunting
India has always been symbolized as the land of mythical legends and snake-charmers. India always had a profoundly rich history, replete with fables, rituals, traditions and uncanny superstitious practices which may claims to be supernatural powers. Witches within the Indian subcontinent are mentioned as “Chudail or Chudel” (pronounced as ‘chew-dale’). In many places they’re also mentioned as “Daayan” (pronounced as ‘dye-en‘).
There are fundamental conceptual differences with reference to the utilization of those terms within the society no matter their common origin. A ‘Chudail’ is an Indian witch or a female ghost and is believed to arise from the death of a lady thanks to some mishaps. There is a lot of variation in the Indian witch stories, all having their unique reasoning and myths.
For example: – The seven sisters of northern India often believe that the ‘Chudail’ can change its physical form and seduce young men by shaping itself in a beautiful lady. Once she lures them into a lonely place, she pounces on them to either with an intention to kill or have physical intimacy with them where the victim ultimately drained off till his life. However, much of these beliefs are figments of outdated notions and have no precise scientific or evidentiary backing to attest the same.
Witch craft and wicked witches can usually be narrow down into three broad categories, as regards the popular beliefs of people across numerous classes and social strata in India.
These types are enunciated as under: –
- The “neighbourhood witch” or “social witch”: – A witch who has some kind of rivalry with the neighbouring people or the people living within the vicinity, curses the neighbours following that conflict. In other words, these are the result of bad relations with neighbouring mates .
- The “magical” or “sorceress” witch: – A women with expertise or a knowledgeable healer, sorceress, seer or midwife, or an individual who has through magic increased her fortune to the perceived detriment of a neighbouring household; applause to neighbourly or community rivalries and thus the ambiguity between positive and negative magic, such individuals are often labelled as witches.
- The “supernatural” or “night” witch: – These are the witches to whom our mind developed instant fear because of their evil nature that we heard in stories read in books and told to be aware of, primarily associated with visions and dreams, and in many parts of India and therefore the remainder of the planet supernatural witches became an ideology explaining calamities that befell entire communities.
According to a historian who researched in this regard acknowledges that an UN report stated that more than 25000 fell prey to witch-killings that occurred between 1987 and 2003 in India and the actual figures can be much more as many were tortured, traumatized, and maimed which were not reported to the authorities and don’t find a place in official statistical records.
Statement of Problem
The study answered as to adjudge why this is a practice has no sense of realism and is totally a result of myths and frauds. A few witch-healers and god men (called ojha) play a gimmick to earn their bread and butter have made it a profession which at times can became a sorted source of income.
The first stage is the existence of a dispute/difference between the perpetrator and the women. victim’s physical appearance seems to be different, sub divided social status, or the behavioural difference that raises a suspicion on the victim or it may turn out to be a dispute of some sort like a property dispute, ego issues, dislikes, or feud which, sometimes can even be latent. This creates a misconception which ultimately form dislike in the mind of the perpetrator. The next stage is an inevitable happening of an unfortunate incident like unusual illness or deaths, loss of property, inadequate monsoons, destruction of crops, etc. where the perpetrators blamed the victim to be responsible for all the mishaps. Often the second stage is bluff game so that the whole the blame of something should be rested upon the victim and therefore the score will be settled thereafter. “They tried to grab my land and sell it without my consent. When I confronted them, they called me a ‘dayan’ (witch), blamed me for several bad things happened within the village and nearly killed me,” a victim said.
The next stage take place when god man gains the trust of the people successfully influenced that the victim is involved in witchcraft or is the reason for all the misfortunes, then they approach and consult with the godman (known as ojha/shaman/baba/bhopa in regional languages) who with his so-called supernatural powers driven from the god itself figures out the reason for mishaps. The problem is so ingrained and worse in the small villages that people fear reporting such things to cops for the reason that they have to live in the society and they can’t mess up with the society’s believes or will be boycotted.
Then there comes the end stage where the victim is just an accused of being a witch, an action will also be initiated against her and the hunt starts. Apart from the physical torture and mental cruelty she has to go through all during the while she is often thrown out from the village or may lynched to death. Sri KuloSaikia, IGP (Border) who has worked on the issue of witch hunting said that the dead body of the alleged witch is cut into pieces and buried at different places because there is a belief that if her dead body is intact, she may return to life.
Laws Concerning Witch-Hunts: An Analysis
India has a very long history of Witch hunts since the medieval age and very much prevalent among ‘Adivasis’. The British tried to ban the persecution in the then states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhotanagpur in the 1840’s-1850’s.
They also took a few administrative steps but the result was contrary to their intentions. There was a rise in the Witch-hunt cases and this was also seen as a staunch rebellion against the British Rule.
Witch hunting is a clear infringement of the fundamental rights a citizen is entitled to under the Constitution of India. It violates Articles 14, 15(3), 15(4), 21, 51, 51 A(h) of the Indian Constitution and other national legislation’s including Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes (prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989 and involves acts punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
The reason that is often cited for it is that the Indian Penal Code, 1860 itself provides for the punishment of offences which are committed in the processes related to witch hunting.
Several states have also individually introduced and implemented instruments to address this offence. In 1999, Bihar enacted the Prevention of Witch (DAYAN) Practices Act which was eventually adopted by Jharkhand as well in 2001. Chhattisgarh effected the Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act in 2005. Rajasthan and Assam have been the most recent states to develop a legislation on the same in the year 2015.
The Assam Assembly has passed a The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill in 2015. However, this bill has been referred back by the Ministry of Home Affairs for review. This bill prescribes the most rigorous punishments for witch-hunting and witchcraft and any acts incidental thereto.
The punishment for leading an individual to committing suicide after intimidating, stigmatizing, defaming and accusing them as a witch may be extended to life imprisonment, along with a fine of up to Rs. 5 lakh. It also has provisions for imprisonment up to seven years, along with a fine of up to Rs. 5 lakh, for calling a person a witch. The bill also talks about special courts to deal with the issue and the fine collected will be given to the victim as compensation.
Judiciary’s response to witch-hunt cases
In a very recent case, the Gauhati High Court observed that witch hunting is a socio-legal problem and needs to be curbed soon. The Court noted that in the North-Eastern states, some people, mostly elderly women, are branded as witches and thereafter they are subjected to severe abuse in the name of getting rid of the evil supposed to be in them.
Terming it a social menace, the Bench observed: “Witch hunting as a phenomenon which is not only confined to the State of Assam; it has affected large parts of the country. It is rooted in flawed quasi-religious beliefs, antiquated socio-cultural traditions blended with extreme superstitions practices.”
The court also termed the act as one of the worst forms of Human Rights violations. Several cases have indicated the courts’ willingness to punish those who injure and kill people in the name of witch-hunts, whereas in a few the superstitious belief because of which the offence was committed has been the mitigating factor in giving the sentence.
The court held the defendant’s superstitious belief as a mitigating factor. The court said, “the defendant’s belief that he was morally justified to have committed the offence under the influence of extreme mental and emotional disturbance and also superstitious belief that he was morally justified in committing the murder of Sakina Khatoon who, he thought, had caused the death of his brother were mitigating factors.” The court reduced the sentence of one defendant from the death to life imprisonment, mitigated the crime of the other defendant from murder to intentionally causing grievous hurt, and reduced the second defendants’s prison term from life to seven years.
In Tula Devi and Others vs. State of Jharkhand, the conviction of the defendants was upheld as per the offences under the IPC but the cognizance under the Prevention of Witch (Dayan) Practice Act, 1999 was quashed. The reason given was that under the Act, the victim held the burden to prove that she has been tortured for being suspected as a witch, which she failed to prove in the case. Although it was established that the accused persons used called her a witch for two years on account of illness of son of one of the accused, after the recovery of the son from illness it can’t be held that she was tortured on the account of being suspected to practice witchcraft.
In Madhu Munda & Ors. vs. State of Bihar, the delay in lodging the FIR and the unableness to prove that some wrong was caused to the appellants or the family members due to the alleged witchcraft of the deceased, the order of conviction was set aside.
Several PILs have been filed in the past against the state governments for inaction towards the rise in witch-hunts and inaction of the legislature which hinders the fundamental right to life of the victims. While condemning the practice of witch hunting, the Court issued certain directives for the State Government in order to eradicate the evil practice of witch hunting.
In Smt. MoynaMurmu vs. State of West Bengal , the petitioners were driven out of their villages on suspicion of practicing witchcraft. The Court while observing the guidelines given by the Supreme Court in Gaurav Jain vs. State of Bihar, directed State Government to undertake the following steps in order to ensure and eradicate the evil practice of witch hunting: –
- The State Government shall form a Committee comprising of experts from the field of public administration, sociologists, etc. to look into the prevalence of the practice of witch hunting in various districts in the State of West Bengal with special emphasis in tribal areas and the Committee shall submit its report to the State Government within six months from date of the order;
- The Committee shall specify in its report, the areas in the State of West Bengal, if any, where there is substantial prevalence of the practice of witch hunting and based on such report the Government shall form special cells in the concerned districts to deal with the issue of witch hunting in the said districts;
- The Government shall also post intelligence and police officers in such special cells who would carry on surveillance activity, collection of information and/or intelligence in the matter and, if necessary, take preventive measures to ensure that such unlawful practices are not carried on;
- In the event of the commission of a witch hunting related activity, officers of the special cells would promptly register criminal cases against the offenders and take necessary remedial measures in the matter;
- The victims of witch hunting shall be given District legal assistance through the Legal Services Authority as aggrieved persons who are entitled to legal aid under The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 and they shall also be extended necessary medical and psychological help and/or protection as they are the vulnerable witnesses of the crime by the State.
The State Government may also explore the possibility of formulating a Comprehensive Victim Compensation Scheme under Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure for victims of witch hunting.
Believe in witch craft is more in rural areas as compared to urban areas or population.
A number of studies have established that crimes and homicides related to witch-craft are gender discriminatory issues and generally practices under patriarchal society as a result of uneven socio-economic condition for women.
The studies also drawn lights upon the fact that witch-craft related incidents are more common in those areas which have larger tribal populations as compared to other populations like in metropolitan cities or liberal urban areas. According to the statistics and reported data compiled by National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) before the supreme court of India on crime concerning witch hunting there have been 2391 murders or culpable homicides and extortion cases between 1999 and 2013 in India. The three Indian major developed states named as Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha are among the worst in the list, each accounting for about 400 deaths in the past 15 years situation is terrible there and no scope of change in numbers in real time soon, as per the NCRB investigation data.
A scapegoat is an individual or a group unjustly blamed for something bad that has occurred in the community without solid evidences. These scapegoats are obviously chosen from ‘safe’ groups, who occupy lower social designation and enjoy less or no power in community, because they are often powerless and unable to fight back so, the risk of retaliation is minimal.
The concept of a scapegoat refers to the punitive or negative treatment of people or groups who are held to be accountable for crises or problems they did not cause (Jensen, 2007). The majority of the accusations levelled against women were by men. These women had reputations for being quarrelsome and putting their opinion across or having an evil eye, and they were in some way debarred from the rest of the village by their behavioural or physical characteristics. So, they become an easy prey and are forcefully called as witches as already the community hates them due to various other reasons too.
The role of rumour and gossip in witchcraft accusations has been well studied by Stewart and Strathern. Their argument is that rumour and gossip play a crucial role in the early stages of stressful circumstances that might develop into accusations and allegations. Data from the witch hunts in India point to the role that “whispering” campaigns play a crutial role in ostracizing a witch and gathering support for her accusers. Rumours enable people to believe what they want to believe (in this case, the evil deeds of the witch), and the rumours displace reality (Stewart & Strathern, 2004). This further establishes the status of accused women as easy and credible targets or scapegoats.
The factors that influence the actions of individuals involved in instigating witch hunts are noteworthy and based on them the attacks can be classified into two broad categories: –
1. Calculated Witch Hunts: – In a calculated attack, witch hunts are preceded by “clear” motives on the part of the accusers based on what the accusers claim to be “instigations” from the accused. Accusers motives can be almost anything, including maligning the reputation of the accused woman, serving personal goals, seeking revenge to settle disputes over property, or explaining why illnesses or diseases happen. Such reasoning and conjectures play a major role in instigating the hunt.
Balwant, a male tribal social activist, has explained that most witch accusations stem from petty household or neighbourhood fights between women (ghorelujogra). Many feminist scholars also support this reasoning with regard to witch hunts. Balwant has also opined that the men, who are usually the decision makers in such cases, use the conflicts between women to serve other interests. The women (the accused witch and those initiating the accusation against her) are thus mere scapegoats in the entire conspiracy instigated by the men in the village.
2. Surprise Witch Hunts: – In cases of surprise attacks, the women victims and their families, prior to the attack, were or claimed to be unaware of the accusations against them. The attack happened without any instigation in the form of prior conflict or any history of witchcraft accusation against the accused witch.
The petty brawls, ailments, and minor conflicts involved in these surprise attacks were used as “legitimizing incidents” to start the witch hunt and to garner support against the target. The scale of the dispute that leads to an instigation of a hunt is more intense in calculated attacks than in surprise attacks. In the calculated attacks, ridding the village of witchcraft or bad magic served as a cover for the real goal, an ulterior motive. These ulterior motives included settling a score over a loan, disputes over property, and personal malice. In the surprise category of hunts, the goals of the accusers were not ulterior motives, but the elimination of the evil from the village.
How witch hunting is hidden in the urban roots and slowly but sharply poisoning the society at every physiological level and pushing the ladder of crimes against women?
A harsh full reality and a proximity factor before the law is that rural areas generally has low literacy rate and women’s contribution towards economic growth is also narrow and that’s why we can’t reverse the fact that most victims of witch-hunting are from villages as per the above researched claims but it doesn’t necessarily means that women’s in metropolitan states are safe and never suffered any patriarchal damage. My very first and for most recent example of this non fictional reality is Ms. Riya Chokrobarti. Our kind and independent media houses started their own trail where only masala wins over facts and fortunes, a girl’s dignity and integrity was on national stakes and no one spokes up which peppers up the misery. The masters of this game played her so well that if she stands alone in public, may eaten by inhuman mankind in no seconds.
I may add a term to this article “Urban witch” yes she is near you, might your close one. I will explain her traits- She appears confident and self-assured, she is educated, she speaks English, she wears jeans and shorts, she exposes parts of her body, she stays in a live-in relationship, she parties, drinks and smokes, she speaks out, she appears dominating, she can live in a city alone amid strangers, she earns good money, and perhaps she eats chowmein in secret. I may not have a complete list yet, but, in short, a modern witch is one who makes men feel inadequate, insecure; and women groomed in the patriarchal tradition feel inferior. The black magic resides in the fact that she can entice, waylay unsuspecting men, and cause unspeakable damage to them. Of course, she could kill with no qualms.
Another big reason of increased cases of witch hunt in urban land is developing the curiosity and myths by creating an onscreen supernatural shows likes Nazar on star plus and Kawach on Colour tv. Portrayal of women with evil intentions and super powers has always been a part of Indian television, ultimately an associated path towards misogyny. After all its was famously said ‘Visualisation is the best way to remember’.
I conclude by stating the figures like according to National Crime Records Bureau data, there are at least a 100 reported witch-killing cases in the country every year. While tribal Jharkhand accounts for a big chunk, the practice is spread across India. Cases going unreported or misreported could be more but no real solution is there on national level. A state legislation is must and forced consumption of misogynist content should be mould in limits and worshipping women is the grand rule not the other way around.
“The whole concept of witches was that women were speaking up for themselves and fighting for their rights. The whole concept of witchcraft came into play to hold down women and women’s empowerment.”MadchenAmick
It would not be an adverse proposition to put forth that the aforementioned lines hold good and validated even in today’s times with India being an epitome of it. The study throughout has effectively revealed that the crime of witch-hunting is mostly a hoax, a conspiracy to extract money, property, land, etc. to which a woman is lawfully entitled. It would not be adverse to adduce here that the crime of witch-hunting, effectively prevalent in today’s millennial era is very much akin to what occurred in Medieval Europe. The psychology of the perpetrators of such violence is yet the same, to deprive women of their rights and their socio-economic liberation.
An effective study conducted in the issue by PLD suggests that the victims of such crimes today are usually women in the age group of 50-60 years and are usually women who are widows or the patients of dire mental and physical illnesses.
It can also be effectively pointed out at this juncture that the victims and their families effectively bear the brunt of such labelling hand in hand. And usually, the neighbours and the larger community are complicit and compliant with the commission of such horrendous violence and abuse of human rights. Even the authorities charged with controlling and curbing such problems stand as mere silent spectators, sometimes due to corruption and mostly due to their own medieval mindsets.
In the absence of effective witch-hunting related laws, the perpetrators are tried under Indian Penal Code. Several states have their own laws against the witch-craft and witch- hunting. But, still there are vital lacunae in their formulation that need to be addressed and a large number of victims of witch-hunting point towards the ineffectiveness and futileness of the existing laws. In 2014, national level athlete Debjani Bora, who had won several gold medals in Javelin, was accused of witchcraft in Assam and was brutally assaulted for the same by the villagers. If such a crime can be perpetrated against a national level athlete then anyone can become a victim of such organised violence.
This issue can only be tackled effectively by educating the people, more so in rural areas and by instilling in them a sense of rationality. Efficient laws need to be accompanied by efficient social welfare delivery mechanisms as well. As we are aware, witch-hunting cases are on the rise because of a combination of factors, including poor health and medical services and schooling, lack of drinking water, sanitation and transport facilities, as well as a general lack of information in remote areas. Therefore, the strategy to combat this social evil has to be multi-pronged.
As a matter of fact, the best strategy that the Government can adopt is: –
- First and foremost, the focus of the government should be the strict enforcement of the existing anti witch-hunting related mechanisms.
- The advocacy of witch hunt laws is crucial to the Indian society as there is no central law specifically against this evil so that we can have an effective prosecution of the accusers and curb the attacks.
- Sensitization and the adept responsiveness mechanism of police and Welfare Department Personnel should be formulated
- NGOs working for prevention of witch related atrocities should make more efforts to detract people’s attention from such adverse practices and apply their energy in other constructive purposes. This job has to done at the block and village level. Local NGOs can play a very vital role in the same.
- As the most important issue is the backwardness of people and the lack of rationality in their minds, there should be campaigns launched against superstition and the witch-hunting practices. This task is has to be done by effective collaboration between stakeholders and the combined efforts of the government, administration, voluntary organizations, schools, etc.
- Special cells should be setup at the district and state levels for identification of the survivors and their rehabilitation.
- The idea should be to effectively raise awareness amongst school children, as they are the future of the nation, so that this issue can be effectively eradicated from the grass root level.
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