Witch Hunting And Witch Branding Of Tribal Women In Jharkhand

Our Bharat, a secular country of diversity, where every person has been blessed with a right to practice his/ her religion and culture, which have been sensitively moulded up with various kinds of customs, beliefs and practices that are being followed from time immemorial. These deeply rooted social and traditional practices and various religious mythical beliefs, gradually, gave birth to a lot of superstitions and senseless societal laws like sati, animal sacrifice. Etc. But as India evolved through time, such unfair practices, eventually, started pacing towards their extinction. When, finally, Independent India received her Constitution, there were colours of equality, justice and rational thinking coming to life. Since then, India has progressed towards an overall development in the fields of sciences, economy, politics etc., battling all most all the social evil prevalent in Indian societies before and after the independence,

But, unfortunately, even in this state of the 21st century, where thinking patterns and ideologies are becoming more and more liberal, the inherited flaws like misogyny and gender discrimination can’t be escaped from.

On one hand, women are seeking equal opportunities, enjoying equal rights, combating in the same fields like those of men but on the other hand, these women are victimized to brutal deaths based on misbelieve, faith and whatnot. Not only are they hunted because of their most hated vulnerable gender but also for the greed for materialistic properties. Activists and Journalists covering such stories have concluded with evidence that poor ladies are accused of witchcraft mainly to extract their land and property held with them.

 Activists and journalists predict the number of victims to be much higher, because most states don’t consider witchcraft as a motive of murder but the problem appears to be a lot serious all across the areas of North India like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, including the parts of Rajasthan as well as Assam. These deaths related to witchcraft and black magic occur almost every third day, where women are usually, held to be the victims.

These women who are branded as witches suffer from a great amount of abuse, violence and terror. They are subjected to mob lynching and inhuman treatment but there hardly occurs any outrage over such torture, murders and rape of tribal women.

What Is Witch Hunting And Witch Branding

To be precise, ‘Witch-hunting’ is violence, mostly directed towards women, though, there are many instances of entire families being wiped away, including male members and children too. According to The Oxford Dictionary ‘witch’ is a woman who is believed to possess evil powers, for the performance of evil things and ‘witchcraft’ as use of black magic powers.

The process of Witch-hunting is an attempt to find and punish people who are suspected to be involved with this use of black magic, any evil activity which might bring along the misfortune to people around. They are branded as witches and are accused of being unlucky and dangerous to society. These people attempt to search, find and destroy people suspected to be witches. The term ‘witch’ has been derived from the old English words ‘Wicca’ (masculine) and ‘Wicce’ (feminine). When someone is accused of being a ‘witch’ they are alleged of possessing of any demonic spirit or powers to alter the course of nature. These branded witches are then tortured and brutally raped by their tribes and communities.

Witch Hunting In the State Of Jharkhand

Despite anti-witchcraft acts which have been legislated in most of the states of India, this gender violence of witch-hunting continues to increase in the state of Jharkhand. In the recent years, Jharkhand has become the leading state with a record of 27 deaths in 2019, related to witchcraft allegations, as reported by the state, gearing up from 18 deaths in 2018, as per the data provided by NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) and since 2014, a total of 173 deaths have occurred in the state.[1]

But that’s not the shocking fact alone. A jaw-dropping truth is that only a little percentage (nearly one- third) of the total witch hunt cases are reported. The 18 deaths recorded in 2018 were the ones that were reported or brought to knowledge, while, 63 remained unrecorded.

Usually, these witch hunts are practised in the tribal sections by male Adivasis against female Adivasis who happen to be their kins and known, and who put allegations of witchcraft and black magic to obtain some interests in property issues or the local politics, which ultimately, turns to violence and mob lynching against these women. In the absence of any outrage by the activists or a strong feminist movement, this crime gains more complexity.

Reasons For Witch Hunting

Although superstitions and orthodox thinking play an important role, contributing towards this offence, they are merely like a pistol to a bullet, where this superstition in the minds of many acts as a channel for victimising women as witches publicly, on order to attain personal greed.  The tribal societies of Jharkhand are essential, patrilineal in nature, i.e., the family property and land is passed on to the next generations through the male line, whereas, the women are only to stay with their husbands. A major portion of labour is done by the women and they don’t get many rights to exercise. The right of the widows to manage or mortgage the deceased husbands land is also on the discretion of the husband’s or his relatives’ choices.

Hence, the victims of such an evil practice are mostly single, unmarried, childless or old women, or widows, as they remain the most vulnerable section of this tribal society. There is a direct connection of witch-hunting, branding and such patriarchal attitudes. In such a society, due to lack of education and health facilities, these women are blamed for the unfortunate events that take place like nay natural calamity or spread of any disease, etc. This all is done with a motive to snatch away their property or land, or due to some personal tensions growing within their families or for sexually exploiting them; for any purpose where they may gain some personal benefit from the act.

 The biggest reason for branding a woman a witch is land grabbing, which makes single, widow and old women as the main targets, considering, social boycott as the most feared punishment, amongst the tribal societies.

Laws And Legislation

The offence of witch-hunting and branding clearly, violates Art 21 of the constitution that provides protection of life and liberty stating that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.”[2] Since, there are no legislations specifically made for penalising the offence of witch-hunting, for the whole of the nation, the provisions of Indian Penal Code, 1860 are used for providing remedies to the victims. These provisions like, Sec.302, imposing charges for murder, Sec307, covering attempt for murder, Sec 323 for voluntarily causing hurt, Sec 376 that penalises offence of rape and Sec. 354 which deals with outraging the modesty of a woman.

To deal with this problem of hunting and branding of women as witches, the states introduced certain legislation, apart from the above-stated provisions of IPC. Bihar, which is said to be one of the most backward states, became the first state to introduce state legislation to battle the problem, called “Prevention of Witch (Dayan) Practices Act., 1999”. Following this act, Jharkhand further, established an act in 2001, “Anti Witchcraft Act”, which aimed at protecting women from the inhuman treatment and provide the victims with a legal remedy against the abuse. Sec3,4,5 &6 of this act provides punishments to anyone who brands or attempts to brand or identify any women as a witch or causes hurt or any damage in the furtherance of the same. The procedure of the trial is stated in Sec7 of the said act. 

In 2005, a bill was passed by the government of Chhattisgarh called “Chhattisgarh Tonhi Pratama Bill”, for the prevention of women who were branded as tonhi. Another bill was passed by the government of Rajasthan, which made it illegal and punishable to call or brand any women as a witch or a “ Dayan” or to accuse her of performing witchcraft. This bill, “Rajasthan Women (Prevention and Protection from Atrocities)” 2006, provided imprisonment extending up to 3 years as the punishment along with a fine of ₹ 5000. However, most of the states like Maharashtra and West Bengal are still struggling to come up with stringent laws to deal with this offence.

Unfortunately, Indian Judiciary has lagged to deal with such issues in certain cases like,

  • In case Tula Devi& Ors. v. State of Jharkhand[3], the High Court of Jharkhand dismissed the case stating the victim lack the ability to prove that she was brutally tortured or harmed in the name of witch-hunting, due to the absence of any eyewitness.
  • In case Madhu Munda v. State of Bihar[4], the accused was dismissed on the ground that due to a long gap of no reporting of the crime, the admissibility of witnesses cannot be taken into consideration.

Other Measures

Besides these, some governmental as well as non- governmental, legal research-based bodies, like Partner for Law in Development (PLD) 1998, etc. have emerged to battle this deeply rooted problem in tribal societies and for the prevention of these women’s fundamental rights, to live a decent life full of dignity without any discrimination based on colour, caste, sex, etc. An NGO called Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra also filed a PIL in SC on behalf of 1000 women who became the victims of witch-hunting in the state of Jharkhand. International treaties and laws, like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1979 and the Convention signed by India on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on 1993, all promote equality amongst the masses, irrespective of their caste, creed, colour or sex, etc.

Various initiatives have also been taken up by different NGOs and Government like arranging for awareness programs in the tribal areas, seminars being organised, nukkad nataks to educate people of this problem, example, Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC), the members of which have visited the villages to interact with the locals and literate on the very topic.

Conclusion

This problem of witch-hunting and branding directly challenges the constitutional stability of Indian society. There’s a dire need to spread awareness among the masses, and introduce many such legislations to prevent this gender violence against the tribal women in Jharkhand who are victimised socially and are subjected to brutal punishments in the name of witches who bring ill well to the society. Investigations shall be made in these cases as only a few of the total cases are reported due to the thread imposed by society. This is the crucial state where every tribal area is struggling to deal with this evil effectively and this calls for a great contribution of strong activists and legal research units to guide legislative authorities on the statutes that can be introduced to efficiently eradicate this problem.


[1] News article by Scroll.in

[2] Constitution of India

[3] 2006 (3) JCR 222

[4] 2003 (3) JCR 156

Shreya Bhatnagar from Delhi Metropolitan Education, GGSIPU

“An Artist with a Feather in a Black Coat.”

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