To be a 'witch' in a superstitious society

To be a 'witch' in a superstitious society


Singho Murmu’s life changed the moment she lost her husband. Left to fend for herself, this woman from Dighi, a small tribal hamlet in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, was working hard to make ends meet but then it’s never easy for a lone woman to survive in a male-dominated milieu. Eventually, Singho, 50, met with a horrific end — she was strangled to death and later hacked into pieces all because people were ‘suspicious’ that she was practising witchcraft.

On August 16, 2015, Sundar Murmu and his elder brother, Fakir, killed the hapless woman when she was alone at home. They then carried her body to a nearby hill, beheaded and chopped off the limbs to give an impression that she had been attacked by wild animals. The brothers subjected her to such an inhuman death because they were convinced that she was behind Sundar’s 11-year-old daughter, Sami, dying of malaria. The duo was subsequently arrested by the Rairangpur police and booked under Section 4 of The Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act, 2013.

Unfortunately, even in 21st century, Indian women are being abused, tortured and violated in the name of being punished for practising ‘witchcraft’. Of course, the real motive behind perpetrating this kind of mindless violence is usually grabbing their land or property or seeking revenge for spurning their sexual advances. B N Durga, Programme Officer, ActionAid, Odisha, elaborates, “There are a number of women in remote villages of tribal-dominated districts that are harassed and sometimes thrown out of their homes and neighbourhoods for allegedly practising witchcraft. It is a form of systematic, well-organised violence against mostly single women with the intention of taking away their property or securing sexual favours.”

According to him, Odisha has witnessed a steady rise in witch-hunting and it’s an unequal social structure and widespread gender inequality that have largely contributed to this crime. “For the past two years, we have been trying to spread awareness around this issue among villagers in the tribal districts of Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Sundergarh, Koraput and Malkangiri. The rights of women must not be violated by branding them as ‘witches’,” he asserts.

Of course, as someone who has spent nearly 23 years of her working life trying to bring about a change in people’s mindset, social worker Subhashree Ray knows that the task at hand is very challenging. “Many of these cases occur in the remote areas and it’s usually women who are single, widowed or separated that are vulnerable. Convincing people to give up superstition is really difficult,” she remarks.

Adds Kalpana Mohapatra, programme manager, Center for Youth and Social Development (CYSD), “And once a woman is labelled as someone who practises witchcraft, it
becomes very difficult for her to escape the discrimination and hostility. It’s not uncommon for ‘witches’ to be beaten, tonsured, paraded naked around village, or the ultimate disgrace — being forced to eat excreta.”

Over the last five years, hundreds of witch-hunting cases figure in the statistics related to crimes against women in the state. As per a study conducted by the Odisha Rationalists Society, 152 people were killed in the name of superstition and black magic between 2010 and 2012. Indeed, witch-hunting casualties have been on the rise across the state. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) corroborates this reality — Odisha saw 177 murders for witchcraft from 2008 to 2013.

Till date, several activists and concerned citizens have raised their voices against this form of violence; but so far, it hasn’t had the desired results. “Basically it all comes down to the mental makeup of the community, especially in the tribal-dominated stretches. Sadly, if they suffer from diseases like malaria or diarrhoea, they are more inclined to blame a widow in their neighbourhood of practising witchcraft rather than visiting a medical practitioner. To do away with this negative attitude, regular awareness programmes have to be conducted not just by social activists, but also by the government machinery,” says Subhashree.

Sashiprabha Bindhani, activist and one of the key persons who filed the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that made The Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act, 2013 a reality, shares, “People who have vested interests accuse women of practising witchcraft to defame them in the society. While there is an urgent need for creating a general awareness around this kind of violence against women, at the same time, the survivors should also know where they have to go and talk about their situation.”

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