A woman who gives birth to a child, takes care of family, can also be a witch. Yes, you heard me right. It’s shocking, but it is the bitter truth of some parts of this country. Witch branding has very strong roots in villages.
Research has recognised 12 states where witch hunts are unrestrained, they are — Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Bihar. In these regions, for generations, women have been frequently branded as witches in villages, blamed for unexplained or incurable illnesses among villagers and livestock. Due to the lack of education and medical facilities in villages, mortality rates are high. This allows these superstitious beliefs to prevail. The death of a male member in the family, gives a reason to the people to call a woman a ‘Witch’.
I met a lady (let’s call her Radha, as I do not want to disclose her identity) who has been branded as a witch in her family. She is a vegetable vendor and I see her daily coming to city to sell vegetables.
The story started with her brother–in-law. He had cancer and it was detected when it was at the last stage. Someone asked them to go to a church for medicine. He denied to go there due to the fear of shame he and family would face if they went to the church. He decided to commit suicide and sent everyone to work that day. The day he committed suicide was the start of bad days for Radha. Her mother-in–law came to her house and started throwing stones on her house, abusing her badly. Her children were at home and got scared, called her and asked her to come home soon. She came and her neighbours along with her mother-in-law started throwing stones on her. They abused her, called her a witch and yelled many other profanities. But she collected her strength and faced them alone, sending them back. But the story had only begun that day; till date, no one visits her house, and people turn their face when they come face to face with her on the streets.
Her hard times persisted when her other brother-in-law, his wife and his 1 year old son died due to AIDS. Again the same things happened with her but this time with heightened aggression, as this incident was somehow a confirmation of their suspicions. I was impressed by her courage to faced it and still fight against her family and her community. After talking to her, I came to understand that even her own husband calls her a witch. Only her children support her.
Seva Mandir, the organization I work with, is now supporting her and a case will be registered soon against her family and community members. The government’s stance on witch branding is ridiculous. At the national level, the punishment is the same for slapping a person and branding a women a witch. Section 323 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), prescribes one year’s imprisonment and a Rs 1,000 fine to anyone who causes harm voluntarily.
In states like Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Chhatishgarh, there are now laws specific around witch hunting. But the implementation of law is poor and its awareness is poorer. Many activists are working on the drafting of such laws and their implementation.
I am still not convinced with the laws against this medieval custom and the effectiveness of its implementation. I am confused how this situation should be tackled – at the level of awareness, the increase in education, better medical facilities, or the legal system? How long must women in this country succumb to such a primitive bias on gender?
Witch branding is strong practices in the villages. Some people to fill their pockets and are intentionally promoting witch practices by making innocents fool.
Bhopa is a person who by mantra, magic and with traditional forest medicines (jadibuti) cures illness. They also claims that they can check whether a person is genuine or not. In villages people go to Bhopa for medical treatment and for sorting their issues.In this part of the blog I am documenting tribal culture about witch branding practices and how they are doing justice with that women.
An 8 year old boy who was suffering from jaundice and day by day his health was reducing. The family visited Bhopa for the cure of child. The Bhopa gave medication but his health was not improving. Then Bhopa had words with his father and other members of family. Bhopa claimed that he can tell who is giving pain to boy, due to which he is not recovering. For this he asked Rs. 10,000. Father agreed and Bhopa claimed that the boy’s mother and 2 other aunties are behind his illness and they are ‘Dakan’ in their family.
The boy died after some days, to punish the ladies in house they played a trick. At the time of funeral of boy the males said the body is not burning and they found bones in his stomach which caused his death. The whole family and community started abusing her and decided to punish them. Then some women of other villages interfered. They tried to convince them but people were rigid. So they agreed to test whether women are ‘Dakan’ or not. The family wanted to do a test by a tradition called ‘Dheej’. In this they boil the sesame seed oil and put a coin in the boiling oil. Then the blamed person have to get the coin out from that boiling oil. If his/her hands burn then he/she is culprit.
Women of other villages who were against the community declined to test the women this way. Then mutually they decided to go temple of their god ‘Tumrao Bavchi’. There blamed women were asked to hold the mud made statue of god and walk backward on the stairs. If the statue is not dropped by them then are not witches. But luckily they were able to complete task successfully and proved to be innocent.
We once did a presentation in our college about the witch hunting practises in Papua -new-guinea, interestingly we found out that most of these practises came into Asia during the European colonization and not completely an asian practise to start with. But that’s just one aspect of it. But I wanted to share this article with you, it might give you some idea about what kind of measures are being taken for this in other parts of the world. Well written article, btw.
thanks, will read it
I had only heard the term but had no idea how cruel it could be. It must be disheartening to know her story but at the same time it’s important to re-tell it. The laws are outdated but I hope she gets justice and that she gets it soon. Way to go!
This is very good writing Bhumika; potential essay on the issue. Will you be keen to do more research?
Good read Bhumika. I think Health education can be taken as one aspect. But understand health doesnt even get tertiary importance in these areas. But it can be a good start though it will take some time to convince them.
This was also a very common practice in the west earlier. It will be interesting to know wha they did to get rid of this practice. Also you would find that this practice is more common in poorer states. Branding someone a witch makes it easier to get rid of them. One less mouth to feed. Widows, unwed sisters are prime targets.