Giridih (Jharkhand): It was an unusually cold December night and the waxing moon shone faintly over Bandhabad, a village 15 km from the district headquarters of Giridih in eastern Jharkhand. Shanti Devi finally managed to sleep, her 10-year-old granddaughter Neetu by her side, their feet warm at last in each other’s company.
Suddenly, a frantic banging on the door woke her up, and she saw a group of people barge into her tiny mud house, calling out her name. Before she could make any sense of the commotion, she found herself being dragged out by her hair. Her granddaughter wailed, and her pet goats bleated.
The attackers pulled her out into the street and attacked her. She was beaten with sticks and punched. Her shoulders, back and legs were bruised, but what hurt her most was the word that was constantly flung at her: dayan (witch).
“She is a witch.”
“She killed our boy.”
“She will finish us too.”
Shanti Devi is among the latest victims of a centuries-old social evil still prevalent in Jharkhand and a few other Indian states. The trigger could include unexplained illnesses in the family or loss of livestock, dwindling financial fortune and even deaths. Whatever the cause, it is a woman, usually from a disadvantaged community, who is blamed, accused of practising black magic, ostracised, beaten and even killed.
An act of superstition, witch-hunting is also a tool, said observers, to repress women, silence them, disinherit them, grab their land and property, or to just get them out of the way if they are inconvenient. Greed, power, tribal politics, the lack of education and basic social benefits, most importantly healthcare, have provided fertile ground to help the practice thrive, focussing on women who are perceived as weak, usually single and aged.
As a 60-year-old widow living alone in her house of packed mud, Shanti Devi was a stereotypical target. Her journey to being branded a witch began with the death of a young man in the neighbourhood.
Fertile Ground For Witch-Hunting
But despite that mineral wealth, it ranked among the bottom of states nationwide in a range of sustainable development goals for 2020-21. For instance, Jharkhand is India’s poorest state by percentage of people below the poverty line (nearly 40%), it has more underweight children under five and more anaemic pregnant women aged 15 to 49 (nearly 63%) than any other state.
The state’s low social and economic indicators have propelled it to the top of a national crime indicator: witch-hunting, the targets of which are women, who are accused of being witches and humiliated, ostracised, attacked and murdered.
Between 2016 and 2020, as many as 94 women were murdered with witchcraft as the motive in Jharkhand, more than in any other state, according to an Article 14 analysis of data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Madhya Pradesh is second with 75 and Chhattisgarh with 69.
While witch-hunting is largely prevalent in tribal communities, it is also practiced in non-tribal societies. Although the majority of victims are women, male relatives or family are also injured or killed in these attacks, a large number of which are inflicted on socially marginalised groups, including Adivasis and Dalits.
In 2020, according to the latest available NCRB data, 15 women were murdered on allegations of witchcraft. Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odhisha—all states with a sizeable Adivasi populations—together recorded 88 murders attributed to witch-hunting.
In 2001, Jharkhand enacted the Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act to “eliminate” the “torture, humiliation and killing by the (sic) society”. Those accused of branding anyone witches and oppressing them in any way are tried under provisions of this act as well as under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, which in itself does not have any laws specific to witch-hunting.
The IPC sections used against those who commit crimes against women whom they allege to be witches include causing voluntarily causing hurt (section 321), murder (section 302), assaulting or using criminal force on a woman to outrage her modesty (section 354), theft after preparing for causing death (section 382) and others, such as wrongful confinement (340), kidnapping (360), defamation (499) and rape (375).
While the number of witch-hunt murders declined 64% over six years since 2014, a year when 42 murders were recorded, witch-hunting still remains a major issue in the state.
In 2019 and 2020, the Jharkhand police filed 978 and 837 cases, respectively, under the Daain Act, according to statistics made available to Article 14 by Nancy Sahay, chief executive officer of Jharkhand State Livelihood Protection Society (JSLPS), an autonomous society that works as a nodal agency for implementation of livelihood promotion, under the rural development department of the Jharkhand government.
Mission 2023: No More Witch Hunts
Sahay, an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, spearheads Project Garima, a Jharkhand government initiative launched in August 2021 that aims to eradicate witch-hunting in Jharkhand by the end of 2023.
The latest programme aims to combat witch-hunting by “empowering” victims by providing them with psychological counselling, training them on job skills and providing them with livelihood opportunities. The other aspect of this project, Sahay said, is to spread awareness among the vulnerable communities in order to prevent witch-hunts.
“This kind of specific intervention in a focussed manner has never been done in the state,” said Sahay. “After a survey, we have identified about 5,000 witch-hunting survivors who we plan to empower.”
An important component of the project is addressing mental health needs so that women accused of being witches can deal with their traumatic experiences. To do that, the project coordinates with the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi.
Apart from taking care of mental health, Sahay said, the “holistic” programme will make the survivors aware of their legal rights and educate them on government welfare schemes that could benefit them.
“Our ultimate aim is to provide the survivors with livelihood opportunities, while also addressing the issues that are the cause of this social evil,” said Sahay.
The focus of the pilot project is on seven districts with a high prevalence of witch-hunting cases but needy women from other districts, such as Shanti Devi in Giridih, can also make use of its benefits, said Sahay.
Will this latest government intervention be able to end the age-old scourge by 2023?
The answer is less than two years away.
‘This Is The Doing Of That Witch. She Ate Him Up’
Ranjit Singh from Shanti Devi’s neighbourhood in the village of Bandhabad in the eastern district of Jharkhand died on 10 December 2021, aged 26, two weeks after he met with a road accident while returning from a fair with his two friends, all travelling on one motorcycle.
Ranjit was the only son in his family. He had done a skill-development course at an industrial training institute and was about to start a dairy business. Using a government programme, he had just taken a loan from the bank to purchase 11 cows.
With a government grant, he was building a cowshed in front of his house. Married to Didmani Devi, he was a happy father to two daughters—four and two.
When the “impossible” happened, the family said they just knew it had to be the handiwork of a witch.
“There were three guys on the bike, but only my husband got killed, while nothing happened to the others,” said Ranjit’s wife Didmani, when Article 14 met her a week after the incident. “How is that even possible?”
“Yeh dayan ka kaam hai. Wo kha gayi usko! (This is the doing of that witch. She ate him up),” said Didmani.
The family approached the ojha, shaman or faith healer, to identify the “culprit”, using his supernatural powers. He found, not one, but three candidates in the village who appeared to fit his description of a witch.
They were all women, and they were all vulnerable—widows, aged and poor. He picked all three and told their names to the bereaved family—Shanti Devi, Sadanand ki ma (Sadanand’s mother) and Shakuntala Devi.
Sadanand’s mother, Jashoda Devi, 60, was the late Ranjit’s chachi, his aunt—his father’s younger brother’s wife.
‘I Am Not A Witch, And I Did Not Cast A Spell’
Jashoda Devi sensed trouble the moment they brought Ranjit’s body home to Bandhabad from the hospital where he died, after struggling for two weeks.
Over the previous fortnight, as a member of the extended family, she had been with Ranjit’s family and helped them around the house. She had seen the boy grow up and his death made her sad. But in that moment of grief and shock, she found something had changed in the family. Her worst fears came true when she heard they were “looking for her”.
Jashoda Devi feared for her life and fled her home and life.
“I spent three days and nights without food or water, hiding there, behind the thick undergrowth,” Jashoda Devi told Article 14, pointing at fields in the far distance.
“She left hurriedly, without even telling us,” added her son Sadanand Singh. “And we spent a harrowing three days worrying about her,”.
Jashoda Devi’s escape enraged Ranjit’s family, who live a stone’s throw away from her house.
“If she were innocent, why did she run away?” said Ranjit’s wife Didmani Devi who, even in the face of imminent arrest, believed Jasodha Devi performed black magic on her husband and killed him.
But remaining at home is no certificate of innocence, as was evident in the case of the next “witch”.
About 200 m away, Shanti Devi, 55, slept soundly, unaware of the danger to her life from Ranjit’s family. Her very pregnant goat bleated occasionally from under the rugs inside the hut—a winter luxury.
It must have been about 11 pm, she recalled, when the witch-hunting party, comprising Ranjit’s parents and other members of the extended family—uncles, aunts and cousins—reached her door and broke it down.
“They wanted me to go with them and touch the dead body to reverse the curse and bring him back to life,” Shanti Devi told Article 14. “Why would I do that? I am not a witch and I did not cast a spell on anyone.”
The late-night intruders abused her verbally, and beat her with sticks and rods for almost half an hour. In the end, they force-fed her human excreta, a common “punishment” doled out to “witches”. They also killed her pregnant goat.
“When we heard the ruckus, we rushed to Shanti Devi’s house,” said Dhananjay Rana, a neighbour who is a member of the local zilla parishad (or district council, the top tier in the three-tier panchayati system of village governance).
Rana said they called the police. “At first, there was no response from the local police station,” he said. “Then we contacted the district police superintendent, after which about 20-25 policemen came to the village.”
The witch-hunters could not make it to their third target, Shakuntala Devi.
Injuries More Bearable Than Humiliation
Even after a week, Shanti Devi’s body was full of bruises, and her dark skin was crisscrossed by deep purple marks. She walked with difficulty and was barely able to squat in front of her mud fireplace to cook her meals.
“My shoulders hurt, my back hurts, and my legs hurt,” said Shanti Devi.
The injuries, she said, were more bearable than the humiliation.
Never before, since the death of her husband 15 years ago, said Shanti Devi, did she feel so helpless. She had lived alone without trouble, visited occasionally by her daughter Renu or granddaughter Neetu. Life as a widow, sustaining herself on the Rs 100 a day as a cleaner at the warehouses of foodgrain wholesalers, was tough, but she lived with dignity, she said, and never had to fear for her life.
“She is devastated,” said Renu. “I had never imagined she would be unsafe in her own house, never expected anyone from the neighbourhood to hurt her.”
The mother and daughter were shocked. But Shanti Devi’s case is in keeping with the larger pattern in the state of targeting vulnerable women—of advanced age, widow or single, sometimes poor and mostly from tribal groups or vulnerable castes.
“Single women with no one to look after them, whom the society looks at as ‘burdens’, are the most vulnerable,” said Sahay, the officer who heads Project Garima.
Often the witchcraft allegations are made in order to deprive women of their land or property. “Land and property ownership issues are a major reason,” Sahay said.
Landgrab attempts are often aided by land dealers and the land mafia. When a woman is wanted thrown out of her home or land, that she most likely inherited, a tiny rumour of her being behind all the illnesses or cattle deaths in the village is enough to do the trick.
A woman branded a witch is soon hounded out, or even killed, with little or no protest from villagers. Sahay said the same trick was employed to stop women from contesting in village-level elections.
It was not surprising that women who were assertive, outspoken and independent—in a nutshell, a “threat to patriarchy”— also ran a high risk of being branded as witches, said Sahay.
We Are Slow But Thorough: Police Chief
Witch-hunting cases are prosecuted under Jharkhand’s anti-witch hunting law in addition to relevant sections of the IPC, as we said.
In the Bandhabad case, the police arrested two men, both of whom were Ranjit’s cousins. Five others mentioned in the first information report (FIR), the starting point for a police investigation, are still at large. Other family members, said Rana, the zilla parishad member, were threatening Shanti Devi of dire consequences if she persisted with the case.
“The police say they were working on the case, but we don’t feel reassured,” said Rana.
Article 14 sought comments on the nature of charges and the progress of the investigation from Giridih district police superintendent Amit Renu, additional superintendent Haris bin Zaman and deputy superintendent Anil Singh. All said they would get back with case details but did not. We will update this story if they do.
“If only the police did their job the way they should, a lot could have happened,” said Chutni Mahato, a social-worker from Bholadih in Jharkhand’s Seraikela-Kharsawan district. Mahato recently won the Padma Shri, India’s third-highest civilian award, for her contribution in fighting the menace of witch-hunting.
More than 25 years ago, Mahato was herself branded a witch, tortured, disinherited and thrown out by her in-laws. Since then, she has been fighting against witch-hunting and has rescued more than 120 women.
Mahato said the attitude of the police had not changed much since her own time when the police allegedly asked her a hefty sum to register a formal complaint. “Even now the police are slow in responding,” she said. “And when they do, getting them to register a case is very difficult.”
Giridih S P Amit Renu said the police were not being slow but thorough.
“If the police act ruthlessly taking one side, the other side will object,” he said, adding that the merit of the case needed verifying first and that sometimes took awhile.
“We are not here to please anybody,” said Renu. “We work to uphold the law.” According to Renu, every FIR has what he called a “life cycle”.
“A definite process is involved,” said Renu. “A senior officer supervises the investigation. Say 10 or 20 people are mentioned in the complaint, the officer will have to ascertain who is actually at fault. He (or she) will accordingly direct the investigating officer as to what kind of evidence he will have to collect and who he needs to arrest. This takes time.”
Renu said the police did not ignore or trivialise witch-hunting.
“It is a crime against women and we take it very seriously,” said Renu. “We routinely take up a number of community policing initiatives.”
Last year, the Giridih police started the Police Jan Sahyog Samiti (Police Public Cooperation Committee), enlisting members from various walks of life. One of the activities of the group is to spread awareness, explaining to villages that labelling anyone a witch is a punishable offence, said ASP Zaman.
‘Witch-Hunting Is About Power’
“There are no witches in Jharkhand; there are only those who hunt them.” Salkhan Murmu, the Jamshedpur-based socio-political activist and former member of Parliament from the Mayurbhanj constituency.
“They label innocent persons witches and then hunt them,” said Murmu, an Adivasi. He criticised tribal chiefs and ojhas, witch-doctors or faith healers, who according to him were the “real culprits”.
Drawing upon his own life experience, Murmu said the best way of addressing witch-hunting was by dealing with tribal chieftains or majhis.
“Witch hunting is not so much about superstition as it is about power, politics and greed,” said Murmu. “This is what the bureaucrats, well-meaning they may be, do not get.”
“Witch-hunting is not a simple case of superstition and merely arresting the perpetrators will not bring an end to it,” said Murmu. “In order to really address this age-old evil, one has to understand the tribal society and its structure, and strike at the very root of the problem.”
Following the killing of a 55-year-old woman over black-magic suspicions near the city of Jamshedpur in October 2021, Murmu’s organisation, the Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan (Tribal Empowerment Campaign), has been reaching out to district heads of police and civil administrations in Jharkhand and other states with tribal population with a set of suggestions.
In tribal social structures, the chieftain, such as the majhi among Santhals, wields a lot of power.
“They are like the kings of their villages and control every aspect of people’s lives, from birth rituals, weddings and funerals. Nothing happens in the village without their knowledge or permission, including witch-hunting,” said Murmu, adding that the majhi and ojha worked together, and people were afraid to question their authority, which is why there is no usually no opposition even when extreme violence unfolds, such as the parading naked of a woman or her public flogging.
“Majhis should be held responsible for whatever happens under their watch,” said Murmu, who called for a “collective fine” on villages where women are tortured on witchcraft accusations. “Villagers need to come forward and speak out,” he said.
One of the ways of breaking the hold of traditional power centres, said Murmu, was by providing facilities in Adivasi areas, such as basic healthcare, without which people were forced towards faith healing, which meant reaching the doorstep of the ojha.
“If they don’t have to go to him,” said Murmu. “He will stop brain-washing them.”
An Unrealistic Deadline
Few are convinced about the 2023-end deadline to “eradicate” witch-hunting.
“The target is unrealistic,” said Ansari Imtiyaz Ansari, a Bandhabad-based journalist with a Hindi-language newspaper. Ansari is a member of a block-level committee–meant to promote awareness on witch-hunting– that includes police, lawyers, social workers, journalists and the general public.
Ansari had organised many awareness camps in Ranjit Singh’s neighbourhood. “Looks like the awareness drives were of no use,” he said. “His wife is educated, a high school-pass. Yet, she believes that her husband was killed by witchcraft. That’s how deep superstition is entrenched in their minds. How can such a deep-seated prejudice be ‘eradicated’ in a matter of two-three years?”
Sahay, the IAS officer, acknowledged witch-hunting would not be gone by 2023.
“Well, 100% eradication is not really possible,” said Sahay. “After all, it is a social evil going on since ages. But we want to set a target. We want to be ambitious, and sound ambitious. That gives our work greater focus and keeps us motivated.”
As for Shanti Devi, she was concerned about her future, afraid her attackers could strike again.
Stripped of dignity, she felt diminished as a witch-hunt victim, from being an independent woman, even if poor.
She was worried if she would ever be able to pick up her life again, face her neighbours, go back to work, and if people at her workplace knew that she had been accused of being a witch, said Shanti Devi. What would she say to them, how would she convince everyone that she was not a witch and had not killed anyone?
(Anuradha Sharma is an independent journalist. She writes on politics, culture and social justice.)