Three Adivasi women, in the Garhwa district of Jharkhand were stripped and thrashed by a mob of 50 people, who accused them of practicing witchcraft, on 9th October 2020 (Laha, 2021). On 10th march, 2021, an Adivasi woman alleged of practicing witchcraft was killed, at the Haatnada village of the West Singhbhum district, in Jharkhand (ibid). Again, on 28th of March, 2021, a 55 year old Adivasi woman was beaten to death for the same allegations, at the Lapung area, of the Ranchi district. In another incident, a 60 year old Adivasi woman accused of being a ‘witch’, in the Palamu district of Jharkhand, was battered to death by a group of men (ibid). On July 21st, 2021, a 63 year old tribal woman, from Assam was stripped naked and then beheaded, for supposedly being a ‘witch’ (Firstpost, 2021). On 15th October, 2021, an Adivasi woman, branded as a ‘witch’ was killed at a temple in Gujarat. On 29th October, 2021, a 55 year old Adivasi woman named Rupi Murmu, was beaten to death by two men, at the outskirts of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, on the pretext of being a ‘witch’ (Times of India, 2021). Again, on 6th December, 2021, a 50 year old Adivasi woman was assaulted by a dozen men on the pretext of being a ‘witch’, in the Panchkhuri area of Midnapore (Khanra, 2021).
These incidents are not only shocking, but rampant in the Adivasi regions. Although most incidents mentioned here are of Jharkhand, ‘witch hunting’, is very common in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Assam, West Bengal and a few other parts as well. This is not something new and has been going on since ages, across the globe. The concept of ‘witches’, dates back to the era of ‘hexes’. Hexes were midwives, mostly women who not only aided in birth, but had knowledge of herbal medicines, plants and animals. They lived in small communities in the forests of Europe. Women, well versed in the knowledge about forests, herbal medicines and animals, have been a part of every culture, globally. They lived communally, in forests or near them. They mostly belonged to what we today call as ‘tribes’. However, in the medieval era, with organized religion and creation of a male dominated society, women and their knowledge was side lined and invalidated in the name of organized knowledge through books. This was taken a step further, when women refused to give up their knowledge and practices. The patriarchal state and the church started branding the women, who did not want to conform to rules made by men in the state and church, as ‘witches’, ‘devil worshippers’ and ‘lovers of the devil’. In 1484, pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull calling on people to unite in a crusade against these ‘devil worshipers’, and ‘lovers of the devil’. This papal bull marked the beginning of a reign of terror against women in particular, who were often suspected of abandoning themselves to the devil. Signs of active witchcraft in a woman included ugliness, extraordinary beauty, a bodily defect such as a birthmark or wart, mental health issues, extraordinary piety etc. Women who were not interested in men were considered to be looking for copulation with the devil (Worldhistory.us, 2017). Women, started being subjected to various forms of torture. They were even burnt alive. All these techniques proved to be very helpful in keeping everyone, especially women, under a singular socio- religious and private code of conduct, dictated by the masculine state and church.
It was important to lay out this historical narrative because what is happening today in the Adivasi belts of India is not very different. Many opine that witch hunting is a result of the highly superstitious Indian society. While this might be true to some extent, this is not the entire truth. Branding Adivasi women as ‘witches’ or ‘dyans’ stems from other factors as well. Also, it should be noted that while branding of Adivasi women as witches is generally viewed from the sole dynamics of non Adivasi oppression on Adivasis, many a times Adivasi men are involved in branding Adivasi women as witches for personal gains, which are patriarchal in nature.
Parashar (2017), writes that from 2015-2017, more that 250 Adivasi women were subjected to witch-hunting in Bihar. These women were subjected to varied forms of violence, including rape. Such violence, Parashar (2017) writes, was not just rooted in superstitions, but more so in the patriarchal mindsets whereby, witch hunting served as the best tool to snatch land and property from Adivasi women, specially those who were single or widowed; to take revenge for refusal of sexual advances and to punish women for petty disputes. Apart from this, it also serves as a tool for punishing women who do not conform to societal norms such as marriage or are free and independent. Earlier this year, a 58 year old Adivasi woman of Dumka was assaulted and forced to swallow excreta by her own relatives on accusation of being a witch (Krishnan, 2022). Upon investigation, it was determined by the authorities that her relatives wanted her property, due to which they branded her as a witch, under the impression that by doing so, it would become easier to evict the woman from her own property. According to Shekhar (2020), witch killings are also an act of the land mafia. They use social superstitions as a pretext to uproot women from their lands, in order to acquire them, at low prices. Usually, places where Adivasis reside are rich in minerals and other resources, making them a target for the land mafias. The victims of witch hunting are usually widowed women, women who are childless and old couples. This evidently suggests that more than superstition, there are other social factors at play. It has also been argued that witch hunts and beatings provide an outlet for men to vent out their frustrations, over their own lack of power, in rural settings, where life is tough, rampant with oppression, where very little solutions and avenues to protest exist. Women who are alone and own land are at greater risk of being accused as witches, as it is highly likely that her land would be coveted by someone or the other around her. In patriarchal societies, women are seen as easy targets and hence, even when it comes to capturing property, single women become the first targets. In rural areas, it is common to have alternate healers, who are mostly men. They are not trained doctors, however, are trained to heal certain diseases with the use of herbs, oils, etc. They perceive Adivasi women, who have the same knowledge as a threat to their livelihoods, and hence brand them as witches. Also, when these male healers are unable to cure a disease, they immediately invoke the term ‘witches’ and blame them on the ‘easy targets’ i.e women from Adivasi backgrounds.
Keeping these points in mind, the main causes of witch hunting can be explained as follows:
To understand patriarchy in the Indian context, a term has been coined known as Brahmanical Patriarchy, which talks about the oppression of women through the intersection of caste, gender and class. As such lower caste women and Adivasi women are placed at the lowest position of the power hierarchy. Upper caste males, as such, wield the maximum power. Witch hunting is often used to keep women from Adivasi backgrounds at bay, according to the needs of the Brahmanical Patriarchal society.
Lack of Medical Facilities and Superstitions:
Rural areas lack hugely in medical facilities. Even today people die of malaria. Maternal and infant mortality rates are also high. This combined with lack of education, awareness and existence of superstitions give legitimacy to the concept of ‘witchcraft’.
Intent to Grab Property or Refusal of Sexual Advances:
As stated earlier, most victims of witch hunting are single, poor, widowed or childless women, who own properties. In some Adivasi cultures, it is not uncommon for women to own land. These women become the targets for their relatives and the land mafias, who want their lands or properties.
In West Bengal (2013), a 35 year old single Adivasi woman was raped and killed by two men who accused her of being a witch. Later, it was discovered that the woman had been constantly turning down the sexual advances of one of the culprits. Hence, refusal of sexual advances is another reason behind terming someone as a witch.
Insufficiency of State Legislations and Lack of a Centralized Legislation:
There are anti-witchcraft acts legislated in most states, however, the practice continues with impunity. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), reveals that, Jharkhand alone saw 220 witch hunting murder related cases from 2008-2013. The report of NCRB, 2019 showed that Chhattisgarh saw the maximum number of witch hunting cases and Jharkhand was ranked third. This clearly shows that state legislations are not enough and in order to tackle this broad issue, a centralized legislation is required. In 2016, a bill related to the prevention of witch hunting was introduced in the Lok Sabha, however was not passed eventually.
Adivasi women like Poonam Toppo, are relentlessly fighting against witch hunting. Poonam and her team provide medical aid in rural areas and raise awareness against witchcraft and witch hunting. Although these works are localized, they need to be acknowledged. Witch hunting is a form of gendered violence, rampant in Adivasi belts, but not absent in other parts of India. I am sure we all remember, the two Bollywood actresses Rekha and Rhea Chakraborty, who were accused of performing ‘black magic’; essentially they were being called ‘witches’, after their partners died by suicide. Hence, a central legislation is the need of the hour.
The author is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas include Gender, Rights and Public Health. She has also served as a guest faculty of Political Science and International Relations, at the University of Delhi.