Print edition : November 11, 2000

Persecution and torture of women after denouncing them as witches no longer appears to be a tribal practice. Assertion by women in matters such as political representation, gender equality and property rights is resulting in "witch-hunts", where the victims are often women of the weaker sections.

THE practice of persecuting witches may be as old as witchcraft itself. But, of late there has been a sharp rise in the number of women being denounced as witches and sentenced to gory deaths. This trend is all the more alarming because the victims have often been women from Dalit or tribal communities and the reasons for the "witch hunt" have actually been political, property-related or gender-specific. The new form of oppression is camouflaged under tribal rusticity or yokel behaviour. However, campai gns and protests against it have been on. The All-India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) and other organisations have been taking up the cause of the victims in the most affected States of Bihar, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh and in parts of north eastern India.

Brinda Karat (centre), general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, with Subhadra Basumatray (right) at a press conference in Guwahati.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

In two cases that were reported in August in Tripura and in Assam, one victim was an active member of AIDWA and the other a sympathiser. In the first case, Subhadra Basumatray, 40, a Bodo woman in Tilapara village of Goalpara district in Assam and the mo ther of three sons and three daughters, had the courage to denounce rituals conducted by the kavirajs or ojhas or witch-doctors, in her village. She suffered a fractured right arm, broken ribs and badly bruised legs. She had thrice been bra nded a witch as there had been three instances of a disease affecting people in the village. On the fourth occasion, members of her family ganged up against her, for she demanded a share in the property of her late father. They got the local ojha, a woman, to declare Basumatray a witch, saying that she was responsible for the spate of illnesses in the village. On August 25, at 10 p.m., Basumatray was dragged out of her house by a group of people and beaten until 2 a.m. Intervention by her husband proved futile. He was also beaten. The villagers wanted her to confess in writing that she was a sorceress.

Brinda Karat, general secretary of AIDWA, told Frontline that Basumatray had barely escaped only because other AIDWA activists intervened. The insecurity in the matter of land rights in general and the increasing political participation and assert ion by women have encouraged vested interests who use the ojha, whose writ runs in the village, to issue fiats against assertive women. Brinda Karat said that the witch doctor, who branded Basumatray a witch, moved around freely in the village whi le the police arrested three other persons in connection with the incident. The accused have not been charged with attempt to murder although certain other sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) were invoked against them. Bodo women held a meeting to co ndemn the sway of ojhas.

In the absence of qualified medical practitioners and primary health centres, the people of Tilapara are largely dependent on the kavirajs, who are known by various names among different tribal groups and are a powerful community. Documentation on "witch-killing" among the Santhals of Bihar and West Bengal testify to the powerful position of mahans, the Santhal equivalent of the kaviraj of the northeast. (The Santhal tribe is concentrated in India in Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa; t hey live in Nepal and Bangladesh as well.)

LAXMI DEB BURMA, the AIDWA activist from Tripura, was not as lucky as Basumatray. A tea garden worker, she had actively campaigned for Left Front candidates in the panchayat elections. Members of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) in collusi on with other residents of the village declared Deb Burma a witch after her co-worker fell ill. Deb Burma was murdered.

Brinda Karat said that Deb Burma had actually taken her co-worker to a doctor but that woman did not go back for treatment. Her condition apparently worsened and she died. Her family was in contact with the IPFT, and this led to the elimination of Deb Bu rma. Brinda Karat said that Deb Burma's killing was an indirect consequence of the absence of an accessible and adequate health care system.

In Andhra Pradesh, she said, five incidents of women being branded witches and burnt to death were reported from Warangal district. According to State government figures, in the last two years 147 such murders had taken place, Brinda Karat said. Such cas es were on the rise in Assam, she said. In Tripura and in certain pockets of West Bengal, where such practices were prevalent, campaigns were on eliminate it. "The only women active in politics among the tribal people are those aligned with the Left move ment. Instead of calling them Communists they call them witches. That is the only difference," she said.

HOWEVER, incidents elsewhere in the country belie the claim that persecution of women after branding them witches was prevalent only in tribal communities. In Bijli village in Raipur district of Madhya Pradesh, a Dalit woman, Lata Sahu, contested against a backward-caste woman in the panchayat elections. Lata was prone to epileptic attacks. The Yadavs and Patels, who belong to the land-owning castes, got Lata's sister-in-law to condemn her as a tonahi (witch). Lata was stripped of her clothes and paraded in the village.

In another case, in Tarra village in Raipur district, a woman was hacked to death after being branded a witch by her brother-in-law after she sought a right over her deceased husband's land. In yet another case, in Gaandi village in Angara Block in Ranch i, two Dalit widows were tortured, resulting in the death of one of them, who was 75 years old. It began with the death of two children due to malaria and jaundice in September. An exorcist told the father of the children, Mahavir Baitha, that the two wi dows, Jeetan Devi and Dubhan Devi, were responsible for the deaths. In front of the son, the mother was tonsured, beaten, paraded and burnt. Earthen pitchers were broken on the heads of the two widows.

Two tribal women, from Pordha and Haripuri villages in Ranchi district, were branded as witches on September 29, paraded naked and their heads shaved. One of them was allegedly raped. An exorcist had declared the two women to be witches. One of them, a c hildless widow, owned half an acre of land. The other victim, who charged her attackers with rape, accused her husband of plotting the attack. She had apparently tried to dissuade her husband from selling the piece of land.

ACCORDING to K.S. Singh, former Director-General of the Anthropological Survey of India and author-editor of the Peoples of India Project, the advent of witchcraft in India probably coincided with the arrival of the colonial rulers. The local people had a larger view of Shamanism (the world of good and evil spirits), but with European influence it began to get identified with black magic, white magic and witchcraft. Women were regarded as healers and granted powers in Shamanism, he said. In his own obse rvation of tribal societies, mostly in Bihar, the majority of witches killed were women and some 30 per cent were men, Singh said. Entire families were wiped out in some areas. Greed for property was one of the main reasons for witch-killing, he said. Th e struggle for gender equality had also led to various forms of insecurities in village communities, according to Singh. When family members intervened, they were most often killed along with the branded women. Singh said that tribal cosmology was explic it in its reference to women being trained as witches. The Santhals, he said, were major "witch-killers" and their witches were often women. Movements against this were on in Bihar and elsewhere, but there were too sporadic to have any real effect, Singh said.

About the Santhals of Malda district in West Bengal, A.B. Chaudhuri, an officer of the Indian Police Service, wrote in his book Witch Killings Amongst Santals (Ashish Publishing House, New Delhi; 1984; Rs.150) that faced with a desolate existence and haunted by extreme poverty and helplessness, the tribe had started to look to mahans for leadership. Mahan is "one who knows", and is assisted by kavirajs. He is supposed to know tribal lore and be able to unravel the mysteries of time. A witc h is called the fuskin here, and whenever there is a drought or a famine or a disease, the tribal people run to the mahan, who would identify some hapless woman as the fuskin. In almost all cases of witch-killing, Chaudhuri noted that the a ged and the weak were identified as witches. The tribal people do not consider it a sin to kill a fuskin. Denying responsibility ends in tragedy, and the mahan's word is always final. Many a time the poverty-stricken family of the "witch" c an only succumb to his decision.

Summoning the denounced woman to the village meeting and assaulting her is a common practice, Chaudhuri noted. Even sons are known to have killed their mothers. The murder of a witch is always preceded by deaths or instances of prolonged illness in the v illage or family. Often sickness and land disputes coincided so perfectly that it was difficult to discern which was the real reason for a woman having been declared a fuskin. Chaudhuri argues in his book that the distrust in women has been accent uated by a belief that they are superior to men in matters of mantras or incantations. Should they be allowed to worship the Bongas, (the supreme deities) they would win favour quickly and their nature being destructive, they would invariably indu lge in destructive activities to the detriment of society, so went the argument.

That a definite link exists between forms of ownership of land and persecution of women is borne out in another book, Status of Tribal Women in Tripura (Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1993; Rs.150) by Malabika Das Gupta. Gupta writes that with the spread of "development", tribal people in general seem to be moving in the direction of emulating the cultural and socio-economic patterns of caste-Hindu groups and losing the singular features of their own society. Communal ownership and control of land have given way to legal ownership of land by men, and 'witch-hunting' has become popular as an extra-legal method to deprive tribal women of control over land. (Tripuri women have the right to demand a share of their parents property or they can de rive a share as per the desire of their parents.)

It is most likely that cases of witch-killing and persecution of women will continue as long as economic inequities and neglect of the health care infrastructure continue. The reluctance on the part of both the community and the law-enforcers to see the killings of these hapless women as blatant murder, as was evident in the case of Basumatray, points to collusion among various elements to keep women at the lowest rung of society. To see it merely as a tribal custom would be to ignore the various influe nces on tribal life, including the political one, where the constitutional right of political participation has the potential to bring women into public life. Revivalism and resistance are but inevitable fallouts.

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