Modern Day Witch Hunts In India
Quiet Please: Witch Hunt in Session
There are, to this day, very serious witch hunts in India that have produced great fear, violence, and destruction in the villages, mirroring in many ways the great witch hunts of Europe and the Massachusetts Bay Colony centuries ago. India is the single-most populous democracy in the world, home to well over a billion people, and a growing industrial power, yet this rampant witch craze is hardly broadcast to the world. Since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, the country has seen its share of religious, economic, social, and terrorism-related problems. The eastern and northeastern regions struggle the worst, and it is no coincidence that those areas are the main home to the witch hunts. With a remarkable gap between the rich and poor, just as it was in Europe, common people must compete for their most basic rights of survival. Most regions in India operate under extreme patriarchal structures and the easiest scapegoats for all their misfortunes are women. In recent years, thousands of women have been killed as a result of witchcraft accusations and many more have been tortured or exiled.
According to the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC), over 2,500 women have been killed in India over witchcraft accusations from 1990 to 2006; however, it is an issue that is muffled and has not been dealt with appropriately. In 2004 and 2005, over 670 were murdered for being witches, so the problem is clearly not diminishing. A major difference in these cases from the European and American witch craze is that it is not the Church or Government that is officially sanctioning the murders of these innocent people. Instead, angry mobs and locally-respected village leaders take the action upon themselves, but they are rarely convicted and usually face light sentences of months in prison as a penalty for committing murder. Local police deal with such cases as a simple law and order problem, if at all, and fail to recognize the situation as a particularly serious or special concern (IBN Live 2005).
Putting Names to the Numbers
There are less similarities between these witch hunts and the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials than the European craze, but there are a few strikingly common traits. Analysis of individual cases would show the ridiculousness of the accusations, but this is no laughing matter. As an outsider, it would be easy to make a mockery out of the claims, as they have no physical merit; the silliness of the nature of the events may actually be the gloomiest part. They are so obviously and atrociously absurd, yet innocent people fall victim to them everyday. In the case of Budhaniya Majhi, for example, she had been dragged naked through the night and the next day was the spectacle of a public meeting, comprised mostly of men. Her entire body was badly swelled and covered with welts and lashes from her beatings when the “village headman,” who acted as the judge, asked, “Do you have proof that this woman is a witch?” A man answered that his father had fallen ill and died shortly after consuming food Majhi had given him. He added, “When my father died, a black cat crossed the threshold of our house. It was black magic that killed my father,” (Sutradhar 2006). Dr. Arpita Sutradhar explains that she happened to come across the gatherings but was in no position to help the poor woman; doing so would have only made the situation worse, just like in the Salem craze. She says,
“Nobody was allowed to offer her or her baby any kind of assistance, not even food or water. As a single woman and outsider, If I had tried to defend Budhaniya in front of the gathering, she would have been killed for using her powers to have 'foreigners' rescue her.”
In another case we see the same hopeless cries of innocence that are not unlike those of Rebecca Nurse and others1. Druti Mahanta, 80 years old, tried to defend herself by saying, “I kept on pleading, even swearing, in the name of God, that I'm not a witch, but he did not listen to me and kept on attacking me. I'm very scared. What is my crime?” Her neighbor, Ganda Munda, answers the question: “She is a witch and is constantly making my son fall ill by her magical power. If she is not killed, then she will kill my entire family,” (IBN Live 2005). By looking at only two cases, one can see the common threads of accusations that, impossible to refute and hopeless cries of women, even the use of a black cat as a familiar.
1Among the accused during the Salem Witch Trials
It is noteworthy that India has only very recently been freed from the clutches of England and is now exhibiting the same techniques as Europe for hunting witches. Unlike New England but very much like Europe, these hunts are taking place over an extended period of time. It is not one dark blemish on an otherwise clean history; it is an epidemic and an everyday fact of life. Women are even tortured and killed in the European fashion and it has become less shocking and more routine. For example, in July 2003, Somri Hansda (60, widow) and Vahamay Kiskoo (40) were pronounced witches by a meeting of 250 villagers and were then beaten and burned to ashes by a mob of 60. Over the fever and headache of one villager (Anant Tuddu), these women joined the ranks of thousands before them and burned for allegedly practicing witchcraft (Dungdung 2009).
The causes of the witch hunts in the eastern states of India are almost identical to the European witch craze, and revolve around patriarchy, greed, and fear. Gladson Dungdung, in her article “Hunting Witch or Hunting Women?,” says the “greed for property and depriving women of traditional property rights is a sidelined fact. Illiteracy, poor educational levels and superstitious beliefs are reasons fit enough to be icing on the cake.” Belief in ghosts and spirits and the lack of sufficient health care act as catalysts and leave people vulnerable to resorting to scapegoating for their problems. Dungdung goes on to say the root cause is the patriarchal system and
“to establish the authority of men, they suppress women who resist the system. Men use weapons like witch-hunting to get rid of women they fear.”
FLAC claims that superstition is not the root of many of these accusations, but rather “socio-economic factors: land-grabbing, property disputes, personal rivalry and resistance to sexual advances” (infochange.org). For example, a woman who inherits land from her deceased husband is asked to relinquish the land by her husband's family, or other men if the family is not around; however, “if she resists, they approach the Ojhas [traditional village doctors] and bribe them to brand her a witch” (inforchange.org).
In line with the Christian dichotomy that teaches that woman was the downfall of man, eastern India has its own myth to imply the same.
As the story goes, two women were unhappy about their treatment by men. They tricked the men into drinking country made liquor and then disguised themselves as the men in order to meet with Maran Buru, a powerful spirit who unknowingly granted the women the power to eat men. Thus, the women became witches. The next day, when the two men came to Maran Buru, he realized he had been tricked. He then made the men “experts in the art of witch hunting,” (Dungdung 2009).
This myth could be considered a perfect combination of Genesis and The Malleus Maleficarum. It teaches that women are deceitful, conjure spirits, and worthy of persecution based on sex alone.
Too Many Women Remain Powerless
The witch hunts in eastern India have been raging for several decades and unfortunately, there is no reason to believe they will be ending in the near future. There exists a disturbing silence in these cases, even from the immediate families of the victims, and that may be a significant contributor to the lack of media attention. Dr. Arpita Sutradhar says,
“Too many women remain powerless, vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, leveled so that unscrupulous people can take over land and settle scores and family rivalries” (2006).
There will always be pathetic people who take advantage of the weak at any cost, but hopefully enough people will find the scruples to have a voice and put an end to this senseless genocide of women.
Dungdung, Gladson. “Hunting Witches of Hunting Women?” Jarkhand Mirror: The Voice of
the Indigenous People of Jharkhand Dishum, 25 July 2009. Web. Accessed 25 May 2011.
“Witch-hunt still a reality in Orissa, Jharkhand.” IBN Live. Video: http://ibnlive.in.com/videos/141433/witchhunt-still-a-reality-in-orissa-jharkhand.html, n.d. Web. Accessed 25 May 2011.
“Stop the witch-hunt.” infochange.org/women, n.d. Web. Accessed 25 May 2011.
Sutradhar, Dr. Arpita. “Rural India Targets Women in Witch Hunts: 2,500 'Witches' Murdered in 15 Year, Others Exiled.” Orato.com, 27 May 2006. Web. Accessed 25 May 2011.