Author: Ranjita Dilraj
Dated: Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Looking up “witch-hunt” in world history books will bring up tales of the notorious witch trials in Europe in the 15th and 18th centuries and in America in the 17th century. But while few people talk about them, witch-hunts are taking place today in parts of Africa and India—and they are on the rise. In India, more than 2,500 acts of violence were caused by witch-hunting between 2000 and 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. In Jharkhand state alone, 573 women were lynched between 2001 and 2016.
There are 22 official languages and an estimated 1,652 mother tongues spoken in India, and most of them have locally used terms for “witch”. In Hindi, chudail or dayin goes beyond its primary meaning as someone who performs magic or witchcraft and is used to mark an individual as deviant, seductive, powerful and evil. A woman who is labelled a witch risks having her identity overshadowed by this identity of the fallen or evil woman assigned to her. The role she previously played in society is displaced by the new identity of the “witch”.
Witch-hunts are often violent and the gory details are sometimes sensationalised by both the local and national media. They more often target women, though men are sometimes collateral damage. Widows and single women are primary targets. The narrative of the “evil eye” and the “barren women” are used against women who refuse the sexual advances of powerful men in their community, or to give up claims to ancestral property. Sometimes the witch label is used to get rid of a widow or an unmarried sister during property disputes.
In 2014, Norji Regan, a widow in her 60s, was branded as a witch by some men in her village in Rajasthan state in the northwest bordering Pakistan. One of the men accused her of casting an evil eye on his buffalo that was not giving milk. The men then dragged her out of her house and beat her severely. The social workers who came to her aid speculated that it was a ploy to grab her two acres of land, especially since she lived alone. Even today she remains isolated by her community, according to the women-focused website Broadly, which reported on her case.
In the neighbouring state of Gujarat that same year, Madhuben and her sisters-in-law Susilaben and Kamlaben were accused as dakin (“witch” in Gujarati) and beaten by their male relatives and made to sign over their land, which was in a prime location and on which they grew corn, lentils and peas. It began when the three women complained about their relatives defecating on their land. The men were not used to women questioning them in a society where women are considered subservient. Then two male cousins died of cancer, and the three women were also held responsible for that. From there the denigration began. Today the men have set up shops on their plot, said a story in the publication Scientific American.
Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan states have passed laws against witch-hunting. But there is a pressing need for national legislation for all states to prohibit witch-hunting. Indian Penal Code provisions against murder, attempt to murder, and outraging a woman’s modesty can be used to convict those accused of witch-hunting. But they can be applied only after grievous injury has been inflicted, and do not cover the initial stages of attacks when the woman is isolated and labelled as a witch.
It is also important to deal with the social structures that contribute to witch-hunting.
Witch-hunting often occurs among backward communities with low literacy, discrimination based on caste and gender, and lack of mobility to urban areas--conditions that scholars say breed superstitious beliefs and situations where someone or something is blamed for the socioeconomic misery of the community. The Central and State Governments along with civil society organisations must alleviate these conditions through community engagement and educational programmes. The media also plays a crucial role in reporting and raising awareness about witchcraft accusations. We must give top priority to eradicating crimes like witch-hunting if we are to create a more inclusive and safe future for women.
Ranjita Dilraj, a former intern in UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, specializes in gender research and activism. She has an MA in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London. She is passionate about generating awareness and discussions on women’s issues and finding solutions for them.