Confident woman, not a witch...

Confident woman, not a witch...

female oppression

Confident woman, not a witch...

If you thought that witch-hunting was a thing of the past, relegated to history textbooks that recount horrific tales of women being labelled as witches and burned at the stake across Europe, Asia and Africa, think again.

Closer home, the practice not only exists, but thrives, even, holding the dubious distinction of being one of the most destructive superstitions in the country. Witch-hunting in India goes back hundreds of years; in the northeast it is said to have started from Morigaon district, Assam, which has earned itself the epithet of being the “Indian Capital of Black Magic”. Today, despite years of activism and campaign against this practice and a tough law in place, witch-hunting not only continues it is one of the leading causes of death among women in the state.

How it happens

The practice of witch-hunting is a compelling blend of superstitious beliefs and blind faith. Usually, it’s the witch doctor, locally known as the ojha or bej, who brands someone – most often a woman – as a witch, or dain. She is then subjected to torture, which could be anything from beating and burning to being paraded naked through the village, forced to eat human excrement and even raped. In certain instances, her hair may be cut off or tonsured; her children ostracised. In extreme circumstances, she could even put to death.

Dishi Baruah, a grassroots volunteer-activist in Assam, who works to educate communities about witch-hunting, explains, “The kind of treatment that is meted out to women who are labelled as witches is totally inhuman. They are tortured, raped and mistreated. If they survive the ordeal, they are left with lasting physical and psychological scars that can make living a normal life impossible. Added to that is the stigma that is associated with them.”

While different reports from across India suggest that over 1,000 women have been killed in the past decade for practising ‘witchcraft’, Assam’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Rockybul Hussain, informs that in his state at least 77 women were killed and 35 women injured on this pretext in 2010.

Just a murder or witch-hunting?

Official cases were filed against witch hunters, but they were eventually dropped because of the absence of witnesses and evidence to establish the crime. Dishi points out, “It is hard to pin the crime down to a specific number. No data on witch-hunting is ever conclusive because it is a superstitious practice, and is not reported. And even if it does get reported, it is not always recorded as witch-hunting; it’s mostly called murder.”

But what is it that provokes communities to unleash such insensitive, humiliating atrocities at one of their own?

The fundamental driving factor behind witch-hunting remains superstition. Folklore informs that witches are born with powers of black magic, and that a traditional medicine man, the ojha or bej, is renowned for his skills of countering these powers. Female ojhas are very, very rare, although Assam does have a few instances of male witch-hunts, too. Superstition also leads to misconceptions surrounding mental health – wherein mental illness is perceived as making a person a witch.

Patriarchy is to blame

The roots of this practice, no surprise, are couched in patriarchal attitudes and the constant need to oppose women’s rights to and over property. In some instances, the local land mafia encourages witch-hunts and killings in order to evict families from their own land. Once news spreads that the land is owned by a ‘witch’, its price plummets allowing for effortless acquisition.

At the same time, rising illiteracy and unemployment, too, create opportunities for the exploitation. These days, there are many who con communities masquerading as ojhas. They make a livelihood by offering medication or remedies for ‘witches’. Their ‘work’ becomes easier considering the poor state of the public health system, fractured development and decaying infrastructure. When there are no qualified doctors or therapists available for treatment, the community turns to the ojha, who misguides them to make money.

Sexual harassment

There is a third motive, which is sexual harassment. In many cases, witches are raped, molested and tortured sexually, all in the name of ‘correcting’ them or correcting them for being ‘witches’. The superstition that allows for their practice of witch-hunting automatically translates into a license to do all that is needed to “correct” the witch, or to rid the community of the witch.

Geeta Borthakur, a sociologist, elaborates, “Superstition backs the practice entirely, no matter what the motive. It is exploited to push an agenda of dispossession of property, to dominate over women, to justify sexual harassment or rape, and even to make money. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, fear and patriarchal attitudes that pass the belief on, continue to give a boost to the crime.”

To fight this regressive social practice and make a real difference, in Assam a truly comprehensive approach, which incorporates enhanced educational opportunities and proactive law enforcement, is needed. In 2001, the state government had launched a project, Prahari, to specifically address witch-hunting. Under this intervention, health camps and awareness programmes were initiated with a view to dispel the myths around women and their health. Fourteen years later, in May 2015, the Assam State Assembly unanimously passed the Assam witch-hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill.

The idea was to eliminate rising cases of superstition leading to the murder of women by calling them witches. Under the Act, witch-hunting or witchcraft done with the intention to cause injury or harm to another person, is punishable. In fact, all cases of witch-hunting are non-bailable, cognisable and non-compoundable offences and anyone who is found guilty is liable to serve a life imprisonment sentence and fine. Aiding a person to commit suicide after intimidating, stigmatising and accusing them of being a witch may extend to life imprisonment and fine up to Rs 5 lakh. The punishments may be severe but as Geeta is quick to point out, “Without sustained implementation, they have no teeth.”

The predicament in Assam needs a concerted effort, and interventional policy implementation that prevents the practice, and addresses the root causes that prop it.