Fighting superstition

Fighting superstition

l Witch-hunting

The mystic and wondrous world of magic in many fantasy books, like the Harry Potter series, kept a generation hooked to it. We all loved these wizards and witches. But in the real world outside fantasy books, a very different tale emerges.

“Witch-hunting claims lives of at least four to five people every month in India. The most crucial aspect of witch-hunting is to realise that not all who are killed in the name of witchcraft are actually related to it,” says filmmaker Lipika Singh Darai. She was in Delhi to showcase her documentary Some Stories Around Witches, a PSBT production, at the film festival ‘Open Frame’16’ at India International Centre. Her film traces the stories of three incidents, where people were ostracised, killed and are living in the fear of being killed.

 “I am from Odisha and years ago, my mother’s family had to face similar ostracisation. Back then the village elders made them pay a fine of Rs 1,500. Similarly, while documenting my film, I came across a family who were fined Rs 20,000 in 2015 for practising witchcraft. The real reasons for these fines are hidden and are hardly related to witchcraft,” says Darai referring to her film. She started thinking about filming this documentary when her father fell ill and her relatives tried to find fault with someone who might have cast an evil spell on their family.

“There is a prejudice amongst us that witch-hunting cases are prevalent only amongst tribal communities. Whoever I have talked to regarding the film has asked me ‘so which tribe are you working with?’ We hardly realise that it is a case of superstition which is widely prevalent in all societies. I see a nazar raksha kavach (an evil eye protector) on the door of many urban houses. What is it? We have accepted the concept of the evil eye without even questioning it,” Darai, who is also a FTII alumnus, explains. Her documentary captures three incidents from Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar districts of Odisha.

 One of the cases in the film highlights another reason behind witch-hunting. Titled Chicken Meal, it traces the story of a family which was ostracised as the villagers believed that they brought ill-fate to the village. After a yajna was performed at the village by a witch-doctor, the whole village was advised to not eat meat for three days. Thinking that the ban was over, this family cooked a chicken meal and was fined
Rs 20,000 by the village community.

“The family always had a very good harvest and the children were all studying in good schools in nearby towns. According to the family, it could be one of the reasons for jealousy. A number of influential people in the village started saying that the man was a sorcerer. The other families then refused to send their children to the Anganwadi centre where his wife was a cook. There was definitely a hint that people thought the family knew witchcraft. People didn’t speak to them and the family was under tremendous pressure,” explains Darai.

The family then filed a complaint at the District Collector’s office. An official visited the village to resolve the dispute. They felt a bit secure after the meeting but the matter remained unresolved in many other ways. “We could feel that a witch-hunt was brewing there,” adds Darai, who captured the second meeting of the family with the villagers in her film.

 Witch-hunting was outlawed in Odisha on December 5, 2013 and yet is claiming many lives. Neeru, a teenage girl, killed an old woman who was also her close relative under the pretext of witchcraft. In the film, Neeru acknoweledges that the old woman was blackmailing her for property. “The old woman had threatened Neeru that she will perform witchcraft. Neeru in turn told the villagers that the old woman is a witch and murdered her. She doesn’t really know if the old woman was actually capable of performing any witchcraft,” Darai explains. While Neeru went to a juvenile home for three years, she remains lost and depressed now.

While the old lady died, there are cases where people have survived to tell their tales. “Three people were pronounced witches after a boy died in a village. While two of them managed to run, one old woman was caught. When I read the front page news of the incident which had a picture of a naked woman with a broom around her, tied to an electric pole, lying on the dust, I thought she must have died. It was later that I discovered that she was alive as the police had intervened and rescued her,” Darai shares.

More footage of this incident revealed that thousands of people had come to see a living witch. “The police told me that the crowd wouldn’t let them go. It was only on lying to them that the witch will be questioned by the law, could they rescue the old woman,” says Darai. On meeting this old woman Darai discovered that the old lady still believed that the police case was against her. She was unaware of the anti witch-hunting law and cried upon knowing that the case was not against her but the people who had done the witch-hunt.

Talking about depiction of stories around these practices, Darai says, “From the beginning I wanted to portray the cases as a humanitarian crisis. I was also conscious to not name any community in particular. At this juncture where people are trying to enact a national anti witch-hunting law in the country, it is sad that popular Hindi films and television series are reinforcing the superstition, idea of witches and black magic.”   

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