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A witch tag to women for property

Feb 22, 2010

Almost every other day, a woman is branded a witch or victimised for witch-hunting in the hinterlands of India. The frequency of such assaults and the dismal conviction rate, despite the existence of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, has terrified victims into a silent acceptance of the cruelty.

Shamimabad village, Jharkhand: The easiest way to grab a woman’s property in rural Jharkhand is to brand her a witch. Unbelievable but horrifically true in 21st century India,  tribal women in the interiors of states such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa are beaten, paraded naked, disgraced, ostracised and then robbed of their land by anti social elements and sometimes even greedy relatives.

The frequency of such assaults and the dismal conviction rate, despite the existence of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, has terrified victims into a silent acceptance of the cruelty.

Although offences under the Jharkhand’s Prevention of Witch Practices Act are cognisable and non bailable, the punishment is not stringent and the Act is seen as a legislation without teeth. For all the torture that a woman suffers on being branded a ‘dayan’ (witch), the Act recommends imprisonment for a term that may extend to three months or a fine of Rs 1,000 (US$1 = Rs 45.6) or both for the wrongdoer.

Furthermore, any person who exploits a woman on the suspicion that she is a witch can be punished under the legislation with imprisonment for a term that may extend to six months or Rs 2,000 fine or both. If any person instigates anybody to brand a woman a witch, he can be imprisoned for a period of three months, fined Rs 1,000 or both.

However, the conviction rate for witch hunting crimes is dismal. The perpetrators, in most cases, are male relatives and their motive is to usurp the property of single women. The modus operandi is to disgrace and ostracise the victim.

Statistics on witch-hunting crimes compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) are a cause of concern. The NCRB reported that in 2007, 177 cases of witchcraft-related murders were reported from the above mentioned states. Jharkhand had the dubious distinction of reporting 50 witchcraft- related murders, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 33;  Haryana at 30; Orissa with 28; Madhya Pradesh with 14, Chhattisgarh with 8 and Gujarat with only one reported case.

The Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a Dehradun-based voluntary organisation committed to putting an end to witch hunting crimes, has reported that such crimes are on the rise in tribal-dominated villages. Witch-hunting is common among the Santhal, Ho, Munda, Oraon and Kharia tribes in the state.

"My tour of Jharkhand has convinced me that women living in Deoghar, Dumka, Goda and Hazaribagh are most vulnerable to false accusations of witch-hunting. Almost every ten days, a woman is branded a witch or victimised for witch-hunting in these districts,” elaborates Deepak Kumar Deo, a legal trainer with RLEK.

Savita Singh, also of RLEK, confirms that Dumka and Deoghar, within 400 kilometres of state capital Ranchi, report at least three cases of witch hunting in a month.

Experts believe that the frequency of such crimes in Jharkhand explains why victims and their families are terrified and continue to suffer in silence; and also why volunteers find it difficult to reach out.

It was, thus, after plenty of persuasion that volunteers and legal trainers of RLEK were able to make victims in Jharkhand and their family members come forward to narrate their woes before judges of the Supreme Court and the Jharkhand High Court at a three-day State-level congregation of women with higher judiciary, held in Itki village near Ranchi recently.

The event was organised by RLEK with the support of the National Legal Services Authority and the Jharkhand State Legal Services Authority.

RLEK presented the case of Pinky Khaka, 15, whose mother was branded a witch and killed. The assailants also killed her father and sister. Pinky who belongs to the Oraon tribe, recalls the day when three youth came to her house in Sudag village, barely six kilometres from Ranchi and mercilessly beat up her parents and stabbed them to death.

"They were wearing dark glasses and had covered their faces. I escaped because I was in an inside room. They did not know that I was inside. It was only when villagers came to our house that they came to know of what had happened. The police came to our house only after 12 hours. I have a younger brother and three sisters who live in Kalmati. I don’t feel like going to their house as they have their own problems.”

RLEK coordinator Meera Mishra, who has been monitoring police action on the Khaka case, says that the accused are yet to be arrested. A case of murder was registered in Namkom police station of Tupudana village. A social worker with the Jharkhand Legal Services Authority, Meera says that Pinky and her younger brother fear for their lives and have left the village. They are living with a relative in Champa Toli in Tupudana village.

Kaleem Ansari, a rickshaw-puller, recalls with horror the day his 70-year-old mother, Gulenoor Beewi was beaten up; while his 80-year-old aunt, Sagiran Beewi and his brother’s middle-aged wife, Sakeena, were stripped and paraded outside their home in Pattharghatia village.

A shocked Kaleem elaborates, “A group of persons from my community broke our door, pulled my aunt and sister-in-law by the hair and stripped them. My mother was also beaten up. When I intervened, I was beaten with a broom.”

The same group attacked Sushila Devi, a 60-year-old woman, who was defenceless because of a disability in her hand. Sushila fears that she may be attacked again. She was paraded naked and forced to drink urine. She lives all by herself, having lost her potter husband five years back.

She has no means of income to support herself or her 14-year-old son. Showing her left hand with missing fingers, Sushila Devi says that she has been compelled to beg for a living.

According to RLEK, 14 accused were arrested but released on bail. Chameli Devi from Hazaribagh said that a group of ten persons forced their way into her house in December last year and beat her up till she fell unconscious. Chameli Devi, who has five children, said that they called her a ‘Bhoot’ (ghost). Oddly enough, she claims the hospital refused to give her any aid.

Sudha Chaudhary, Jharkhand’s new minister for Women and Child Development, is determined to take urgent measures to prevent witch-hunting crimes. She says, “I want to launch an awareness campaign to empower women. I will discuss the issue of witch-hunting crimes with officers in my ministry. It is important to educate women to tell them that they should shed superstitious beliefs.” One only hopes that the men are not deprived of such an education.

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