Massive awareness campaign needed to curb witchcraft deaths

The incidents of common villagers taking law into their own hands and killing their co-villagers, branding them as practitioners of witchcraft and black magic, are on the rise in Odisha.

Stating the situation as alarming, activists have already warned that it will further deteriorate if drastic measures are not taken to end the menace. “The situation is certainly alarming, particularly in tribal dominated districts. There is an urgent need of some immediate steps to tackle the situation,” said Jalandhar Pradhan, the president of Odisha Rationalists’ Association’s (ORA) Rourkela branch in Sundergarh, one of the tribal dominated districts badly affected by the problem.

Agreed Prabir Das, the Bhubaneswar based lawyer and activist who belongs to Mayurbhanj, another tribal dominated district, also hit by the menace. “Urgent steps must be taken to tackle the situation before it goes out of hand,” he said.

The gravity of the situation could well be assessed from the fact that black magic, witchcraft and sorcery-related violence have already claimed nearly 300 lives during the last five years in different districts in the state. The toll has already crossed 40 by the second week of October in the current calendar year. No wonder, some activists describe it as a much bigger problem than the Maoist threat.

“According to official figures available with the state government, in 2011, 33 people were killed in Odisha in Maoist violence. That year black magic, sorcery and witchcraft related violence had claimed 72 lives. Therefore, there is nothing wrong calling this as a bigger problem and challenge for the state than the Maoist menace,” explained a Bhubaneswar based activist.

Women have been the worst sufferers. This is clearly visible if one would go into the figures available for three consecutive years from 2010 onwards. In these three years, 180 people were murdered in different districts in sorcery-related violence, of which more than 50 per cent – 105 to be precise – were women. The co-villagers killed these innocent women either branding them as witches or charging them of helping their husbands and other family members in black magic or witchcraft.

The most tragic and disturbing fact is that the people are not hesitating to eliminate even their near and dear ones coming under the influence of the problem. A case in point is an incident that took place in a village under the Kaptipada police station limits in tribal dominated Mayurbhanj district just a few days back.

The wife of a villager had died two months ago after a prolonged illness. The 45-year-old tribal suspected his father of being a black magic practitioner. He thought it was his 85-year-old father who had done some magic leading to the untimely demise of his wife. On October 19, he hacked his father to death with the help of sharp weapon. He also killed his 55-year-old uncle (his father’s younger brother) when the latter rushed to the spot hearing his brother’s cry for help. The killer fled the village after executing the double murder.

Alarming situation
The trouble has not remained confined to tribal dominated districts alone. It has already established its grip in some non-tribal districts too. Ganjam in southern Odisha, a non-tribal district, has already earned the dubious distinction of recorded 34 black magic and witchcraft related killings in the last few years. Significantly, Ganjam is the native district of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who also heads the home department.

Worried over the alarming situation, the state government last year had adopted a legislation in the state assembly and put in place a new law called Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act to stem the threat. The new law ensures imprisonment as well as fines for anybody indulging in crimes relating to witchcraft and black magic. “Not only the new law, people are also being booked for this type of crimes under different provisions of the IPC,” said a state government official.

However, neither the new law nor the IPC are having any impact on the menace which has already threatened to go out of hand. Black magic and witchcraft related violent incidents are being reported from the districts almost every fortnight.

A section of the activists blame the lack of proper action and investigation on part of the police against the perpetrators for the growth of the menace. The police, nevertheless, have their own defence. Explaining the difficulties faced by the men in uniform, a senior police official narrated an incident that had occurred a couple of years ago in a village in Ganjam district.

In a black magic related incident, a man was beaten badly by his own co-villagers. He registered a case. When the police went to the village for investigation and to nab the culprits, there was an armed resistance from the villagers. The police opened fire to control the situation resulting in death of two villagers. In order to bring down the tension and appease the irate mob, the government immediately placed one police officer under suspension even before an inquiry. “Under these circumstance, which police officer would come forward to take stringent action against the perpetrators?” asked the senior policeman who did not want to be identified.

However, majority of the activists as well as government officials concede that an issue like black magic or witchcraft can not be wiped out with the help of a legislation or police alone. “No law can control the menace. The need of the hour is a massive awareness campaign with involvement of all sections of the society. Only then can this type of a problem be handled properly,” said Das and Pradhan.

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