New Delhi— The persistent societal problem of witch-hunting remains prevalent in conservative societies, with women frequently becoming victims of severe physical and mental abuse. A recent incident in the northeastern state of Assam highlights that the battle against this injustice is far from over.
In the village of Bhogjhara Samarpur in Kokrajhar District, a tragic incident unfolded on the day of Diwali. Marshila Murmu, a middle-aged woman, became the victim of a horrifying murder, reportedly driven by suspicions of witchcraft. The alleged perpetrator, Lakhan Tudu from No.2 Phulkumari village, was apprehended by vigilant locals who believed he was involved in the brutal killing of Marshila. What adds to the disturbing nature of this incident is that the accused readily admitted to the crime.
Just two months back, an elderly woman was mercilessly killed by unidentified individuals, suspected of practicing witchcraft. The tragic episode unfolded on 13th September in Chatabari Pt I Village, Goalpara district, where Praneswari Rabha, aged 56, went missing after going to feed her cattle on Tuesday afternoon. Villagers, after an extensive search, discovered her lifeless body at the cemetery later that night. Initial findings indicate that she was bound and brutally attacked, leading to her death. Tragically, Praneswari's brother had also been killed in a similar fashion years ago, allegedly for practicing witchcraft.
In December of 2022, a 45-year-old Adivasi woman named Anjali Murmu was lynched by a mob on suspicion of practicing witchcraft in the state. Authorities believe that she was first murdered, and subsequently, her lifeless body was hung from a tree.
Over the period spanning from 2010 to 2021, over 1,500 individuals in India fell victim to acts of violence, including burning and lynching, following allegations of witchcraft, as reported by the National Crime Records Bureau. Between 2001 and 2016, the state of Jharkhand witnessed the lynching of 523 women by their local communities, who had been labeled as witches. Regions such as Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, and West Bengal are identified as significant hotspots for witch-hunting crimes in India. According to a study conducted by the Action Aid Association, titled ‘Witch Hunting in Odisha,’ only 69% of all reported cases of witch-hunting in India resulted in police intervention. Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal are among the states where witch hunts are common.
Witch hunts predominantly victimize women and take advantage of both the caste system and patriarchal norms prevalent in India. Those who label women as witches, known as "dakan or dayan," leverage deeply ingrained superstitions and structures rooted in misogyny and patriarchy to unfairly accuse and stigmatize females. The allegations of practicing sorcery are strategically employed to displace women from valuable land that men desire, especially in regions where inadequately planned development initiatives have led to agricultural setbacks. Sociologists studying violence in India emphasize the critical role of gender-based discrimination, entrenched superstitious beliefs, and unequal land access in creating a hostile environment. Women, as a result, become targets of false accusations, facing severe consequences not only for their social standing but also for their overall well-being. This underscores the complex interplay of cultural, social, and economic factors contributing to the perpetuation of witch hunts in certain regions of India.
A report conducted by the Odisha State Commission for Women and Action Aid, an international non-governmental organization, compiled case studies of 102 individuals who fell victim to witch-hunting and witch-branding in the state. The report noted that the prevalence of witch hunting is widespread in communities characterized by unequal socio-economic structures, gender inequality, insufficient healthcare, and widespread illiteracy. Women, particularly those from Dalit and tribal communities, disproportionately experience exploitation and brutality as a result. The Action Aid report introduces a gender perspective to these witch hunts, suggesting that women who dared to assert themselves have become targets of such atrocities. The report identifies single women, especially those who are widowed or separated, as the most vulnerable groups subjected to crimes associated with witch-branding.
In 1999, Bihar became the first state in India to enact legislation aimed at combating witch-hunting, known as the "Prevention of the Witch (Dayan) Practices Act." Following suit, Jharkhand introduced the "Anti-Witchcraft Act" in 2001 to protect women from cruel treatment and provide legal remedies for victims. Specifically, Sections 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the Act outline penalties for those identifying someone as a witch, attempting to cure the alleged witch, and causing harm to her. Section 7 delineates the trial procedures under the law. In 2005, the Chhattisgarh government enacted the "Chhattisgarh Tonhi Pratama Bill" to discourage the atrocities perpetrated against women under the pretext of Tonhi. Additionally, the Rajasthan government introduced the Rajasthan Women's (Prevention and Protection from Atrocities) Act of 2006, criminalizing the labeling of any woman as a “dayan” or accusing her of engaging in witchcraft. Violation of this law is subject to punishment, including imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of Rs 5000. In 2015, both Rajasthan and Assam implemented legislation to outlaw witch-hunting. The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention, and Protection) Bill stipulates a three-to-seven-year imprisonment for falsely labeling any individual as a witch, irrespective of their gender. In cases where someone driven by such accusations resorts to suicide, the penalty can escalate to a life sentence.
The call for a unified law arises from the disparities among various state-level regulations concerning witch-hunting and superstitions. For optimal implementation on the ground, a central law should address the shortcomings of state laws and be grounded in a comprehensive understanding of the broader social context. According to the paper titled ‘Witch Hunting in India – Need for a Central Legislation’ published by the Journal of Applicable Law and Jurisprudence, the core reasons for the ineffective implementation of well-intentioned laws, such as those targeting superstitions, stem from the realities within communities. When authorities, for instance, engage in behind-the-scenes negotiations that render victims powerless in many instances, it exposes the entrenched patriarchal and caste-based foundations of crimes related to superstitions. Research findings from the report also indicate that property ownership, a potent avenue for female empowerment, continues to be central to the perpetration of such crimes. Additionally, superstitions are wielded as tools for confining women through a "mechanization of tradition" and systematic deprivation, strategically designed to keep women alienated from the potential for resistance. Consequently, a central law needs to diverge from existing state laws in its understanding of the victim's circumstances.