Day Thirteen | Witch-branding in Eastern India

Mayur Suresh

witch-huntingImage reproduced from DW

Witchcraft-related beliefs result in violence against women in parts of India, as in other regions of the world. Allegations of witchcraft lead to violence against women, including social boycotts, public humiliation, banishment, torture and lynching. As noted by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, being accused of witchcraft “is tantamount to receiving a death sentence.” 

In India, witchcraft-related violence against women is more ubiquitous than official statistics suggest. In November this year, an 81-year-old woman, who was accused of witchcraft by other residents of her village, had her face blackened, was garlanded with shoes and forced to walk through her village. In September of this year, a boy hacked his aunt to death, as he thought she was a witch. While men have also been the target of violence following witchcraft allegations, anecdotal evidence suggests that witchcraft accusations are made mostly against women.

The state of Jharkhand has recorded the highest number of witchcraft-related deaths in India. According to official statistics, in the year 2016-17, 19 women were killed on the allegation that they were witches, with 523 women being killed on witchcraft accusations between 2001 and 2016. These statistics reveal a fraction of the problem because they only represent those cases where ‘witchcraft’ is mentioned in the police records as a motive for murder, and they only record the murder of ‘witches’ – leaving the vast majority of violence that results from witchcraft allegations uncounted. 

Jharkhand has enacted a law that criminalises the identification of someone as a witch. Additionally, the law criminalises the rituals performed by an ojha or a witch doctor who the community believes can identify and ‘cure’ witches. However, both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that implementation is poor, even when a ‘witch’ has been murdered or assaulted. 

Earlier this year, I conducted preliminary fieldwork in Jharkhand where I met governmental and community-based organisations that engaged people on issues of witchcraft, as well as those who had personal experiences of being accused of witchcraft. A common story runs through many narratives that I came across during this fieldwork. An adversity befalls a family: an illness, an inability to bear children, crop failure or the death or illness of livestock. The family goes to an ojha (who is always a man) to deal with the problem. The ojha may tell the family ‘black magic’ has been performed on the family by a witch and they need to counter-act it. The family then performs a ritual in order to ward off the ‘black magic’. In the event the adversity persists, the ojha might tell the family how to identify the ‘witch’. Often this ‘witch’ will not be named, but rather the ojha will give clues to identify the ‘witch’ – for example, “Next to a pipal tree in your village there is a house with a door that points north. This witch lives around there.” 

After a person is identified, the public accusations begin. Threats are made against the ‘witches’ – warning of dire consequences if the witchcraft is not stopped. Rumours spread and soon other members of the community make similar accusations, claiming that their own illnesses or misfortunes are because of the ‘witch’. What follows is ever-increasing acts of humiliation and violence against the person by the rest of her village.

Witch-branding is therefore not a single act of naming, but is instead a process, where a person is gradually identified as a witch, with more and more people accusing them, accompanied by escalating forms of violence. The initial naming thus has devastating consequences. In addition, witchcraft allegations always take place within communities; often involving an entire village (both men and women) against a few (largely female) individuals. The victims and the perpetrators are usually of the same caste or tribal community, and are very often related – as one person told me, witch-branding is a type of domestic violence, where a family persecutes a few individuals within it. 

It became clear that the women who had personal experiences of being accused of witchcraft often did not know where the accusations originated from. As “everyone knew that [they] were witches,” the stories that were told about them took the form of communal accusations, and no one person could be identified as the accuser. Effectively, these were experienced as anonymous accusations that could neither be rebutted or rationalised. Whereas in other contexts, this form of communal knowledge might be celebrated, here it constitutes a direct threat to the lives and safety of women. 

Incidentally, the people who perpetrate violence against ‘witches’ think of themselves as the victims and the ‘witches’ as the perpetrators. According to a legal NGO in Jharkhand, the accused murderers often confessed to their crimes as they believed they were acting in self-defence. I was also told that people accused of killing ‘witches’ often expressed incredulity at being arrested and prosecuted for murder, “as witches had to be killed.”

Attempts have been made to identify socio-economic indicators of ‘witches’ that sets them apart from their communities. My ethnographic interlocutors, however, resisted attempts to draw such causal connections. They said that ‘witches’ are often as rich or as poor as their accusers, and they often have the same educational level as well. ‘Witches’ can be married, unmarried or widowed; they can have children or be childless. According to one community worker,

“if it is a poor woman who is called a witch, they will say she used black magic because she is jealous of the wealth of others […] if it is a rich woman, then she does it to keep others poor.” 

What remains constant is that ‘witches’ are mostly women. Witchcraft therefore shows us how gender can be experienced as a threat and how a discourse can be built around gender to justify that feeling of threat.

 

Mayur Suresh is a Future of Change India Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law, UNSW, Sydney and a Lecturer in Law at SOAS University of London. His research seeks to bring an anthropological perspective to the study of legal processes. He is currently finishing a book titled ‘Terrorists’ on Trial: Life and Law in Delhi’s Courts. This blog comes out of a new research project on witch-branding laws in Jharkhand.

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