Seraikela— In yet another tragic incident of witch-hunting in Jharkhand, a woman and her family in Badamari Village under Kandra Police Station in SaraiKela district, fell victim to the barbaric practice that continues to claim innocent lives every year. On July 20, the Hansda family experienced a horrifying ordeal when they were brutally attacked by Gaurishankar Tudu, Ajay Tudu, and Lusku Tudu, who accused the woman of being a witch and blamed her for a neighbor's illness.
As per the family's account, the assailants launched the attack between 11:00 PM and 12:00 AM, subjecting them to a night of terror. The attackers not only physically assaulted the family but also threatened their lives and property, invoking the sinister pretext of witchcraft.
Appalled by the injustice and brutality faced by the Hansda family, the victims filed a written complaint at the Kandra police station on July 22, seeking justice and protection. However, as of now, no concrete action has been taken to apprehend the perpetrators, causing anguish and frustration among the affected family and their community.
Stepping forward to extend their support and amplify the voice against witch-hunting, former MP Salkhan Murmu, and renowned social activist Padma Shri awardee Chhutni Mahato visited Badamari Village. Expressing solidarity with the victims, they met with the Hansda family to understand the full extent of the harrowing experience they endured. The visit aimed to provide solace to the family and assure them that their plight is not ignored.
Subsequently, Salkhan Murmu and Chhutni Mahato, in association with Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan, are leading a symbolic protest to condemn the practice of witchcraft accusations and demand justice for the victims. The protest is scheduled to be held on August 3, in Seraikela, and on August 4, in Jamshedpur. This demonstration aims to draw attention to the pressing issue of witch-hunting and its impact on vulnerable individuals, particularly women, who bear the brunt of these baseless allegations.
In a candid conversation with The Mooknayak, Chhutni Mahato, the 64-year-old activist, exudes enthusiasm and determination despite the challenges she faces in her crusade against witch-hunting.
Chhutni reflects, "Life for tribal people was comparatively better when we were part of Bihar. However, since Jharkhand became an independent state, the condition of the tribal community has worsened. The challenges faced by vulnerable groups in the region have intensified, including the pervasive issue of witch-hunting that continues to haunt many lives."
She regrets the lack of resources, acknowledging that she could have accomplished even more if she had better means at her disposal. One significant hindrance she encounters is the absence of a vehicle, which makes it difficult for her to be present in multiple locations where cases of witch-hunting arise on a daily basis. Chhutni Mahto points out that despite the enactment of The Prevention of Witch Practices Act in 2001, cases of witch-hunting continue unabated. She attributes this persistence to the inefficiency of the government and law enforcement agencies in taking stringent action against the perpetrators. The lack of swift and decisive action allows the perpetuation of this cruel practice, leaving innocent lives at risk.
The Mooknayak spoke to Salkhan Murmu, the national president of Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan who shared his concerns. Murmu passionately addresses the pressing issue of witchcraft prevalent in tribal village-society. Drawing from years of experience with his efforts through ASA , he emphasizes that witchcraft is an archaic and detrimental tradition still held on by some in these communities across Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Bihar, and beyond.
Murmu goes on to offer valuable suggestions to eliminate the root cause of witchcraft. Firstly, he proposes imposing a collective fine in tribal villages where violence and torture occur under the pretext of witchcraft. This measure seeks to hold the entire village accountable while providing exemptions to those who actively cooperate in raising public awareness against witchcraft.
Secondly, he says, "The tribal self-government chiefs (Majhi-Pargana), must be made accountable, most of whom are hereditary and illiterate appointees". He believes that they must be made responsible for ending the practice of witchcraft in their respective villages, as they wield significant influence in these communities.
Next, he suggests organizing regular coordination meetings in police station areas, supervised by the police-administration, involving panchayat representatives, tribal self-government representatives, leading citizens, women's groups, local NGOs, etc. These meetings would foster collaboration and collective strategizing to combat witchcraft effectively.
Moreover, Murmu advocates for an improvement in tribal village society through a qualitative democratization process. By replacing hereditary illiterate-parganas with educated and sensible individuals appointed by the villagers, the fundamental right to live with dignity will be better upheld.
Tragically, the incident in Badamari Village is not an isolated case. Witch-hunting, known as "Dayan Pratha," remains a rampant and deeply entrenched issue in Jharkhand's rural areas. Superstitions and lack of awareness continue to fuel such brutal practices, posing a significant challenge for law enforcement and activists alike. In the past few years, 215 women were killed in the name of witchcraft. In the year 2019, about three cases related to witchcraft were registered daily.
As per the available statistics, Jharkhand witnessed a distressing number of deaths related to accusations of witchcraft in the past years. In 2015, a staggering 46 individuals lost their lives due to such accusations. The subsequent years also experienced tragic incidents, with 39 killings in 2016, 42 in 2017, 25 in 2018, 27 in 2019, and 28 in 2020. Up until October 2021, there were 18 more reported cases of individuals being killed after being branded as witches.
The number of cases registered under the Witchcraft Prohibition Act has been on the rise each year. In 2015, there were 818 cases reported, which decreased to 688 in 2016, further down to 668 in 2017, but then increased sharply to 978 in 2019 and 841 in 2020.
Interestingly, there seems to be a discrepancy in the figures provided by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) regarding witch killings. According to the NCRB report, Jharkhand had a significantly lower count of 15 witch killings in 2020, nearly half of what the CID claims. Furthermore, Madhya Pradesh took the unfortunate lead with 17 cases, while Chhattisgarh and Odisha recorded 16 and 14 cases, respectively. The NCRB data places Jharkhand at the third position, with Madhya Pradesh topping the list for witch killing incidents.
Chhutni Mahato's story is a harrowing tale of the deeply rooted superstitions and prejudices prevalent in certain rural areas, particularly in Jharkhand. Born in 1959, Chhutni , a simple woman from Birbans village in Thana Gamharia, Jharkhand, has been advocating for awareness about the fallacy of witchcraft not only in her own village but throughout the country.
At a young age of 12, Chhutni was married to Dhananjay Mahto from MahtandDih village in Gamharia Thane. They eventually became parents to three children. However, her life took a dark turn on September 2, 1995, when her neighbor daughter fell ill. The people of the village, instead of seeking proper medical treatment, accused Chhutni of practicing sorcery and witchcraft.
A panchayat, or a local council, was convened in the village to address the situation, and tragically, Chhutni was declared a witch based on baseless accusations. From that day onwards, she became the victim of severe harassment and abuse. Many people in the village attempted to rape her by forcibly entering her house. Chhutni managed to escape these horrific assaults, but her life became a nightmare.
The villagers relentlessly tormented her, labeling her a witch and subjecting her to various forms of humiliation. An exorcist was called to perform rituals, and she was even forced to drink human excreta as part of their misguided attempts to exorcise her. She was forcedly paraded semi naked.
After being declared a witch, Chhutni Mahato was shunned by the entire community, and she was not even allowed to enter her own house. She had to spend the night with her children outside under a tree, facing immense hardship and injustice.
Despite enduring unimaginable hardships and trauma, Chhutni refused to be defeated and made it her life's mission to rescue women suffering from the scourge of witch-hunting.
Supported by her brothers , who stood by her side during her darkest moments, Chhutni found solace in her maternal home, which became her refuge and sanctuary. Driven by her own harrowing experiences, she resolved to put an end to the cruel practice of branding innocent women as witches.
With unwavering determination, Chhutni Mahato embarked on a mission to save women from abuse and prevent needless deaths caused by witchcraft accusations. Through her relentless efforts and compassionate outreach, she managed to rescue over 130 women from the clutches of harassment and discrimination. More impressively, she intervened and saved the lives of more than 50 women who were at risk of becoming victims of witch-hunting.
In recognition of her exceptional work, Chhutni Mahato was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri in 2021, one of the highest civilian awards in India.