A 63-year-old woman in Assam was allegedly killed by three men on Monday after they suspected her to be a witch.
"The trio forced Poni Orang out of her house around noon on Monday, took her near a river and killed her. They accused her of being a witch and alleged that it was due to her presence that many people in the village were falling ill," Biswanath Superintendent of Police Manabendra Rai said.
The men reportedly assaulted her before they beheaded her.
However, Orang's murder is not an isolated case; in fact witch-branding and hunting is common in several central and eastern states in India like, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, of the 160 murders committed in 2013 with witch-hunting as motive, 54 were from Jharkhand alone, the highest in the country. Over 400 have been killed in Jharkhand on suspicions that they were "daayans" or witches since 2001 when the state was carved out of Bihar.
Jharkhand is a state with heavy tribal population. Women are regularly branded witches in these regions, tortured both physically and mentally, tied to trees and beaten up, their heads tonsured and eventually savagely murdered. Those who are not killed are ostracized by society and face continuous mental harassment.
Unfortunately, there is no national law against witch hunting in the country.
Talking to The News Minute, Ajay Kumar- Secretary of Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA)- an NGO in Jharkhand, said that in the last 20 years around 1,300 women have been killed in the state because they were suspected to be practising witch-craft. Official estimates are much lower.
How is someone branded a witch?
Witch-branding usually begins when something drastic happens in the area, like the sudden death of a person, or an epidemic in the village and even bad crop.
With minds steeply rooted in superstitions, the villagers need an outlet to dump their anger and frustrations on. It is mostly women, single or widowed, who then find themselves at the receiving end.
Kumar points out that it is not just superstition that drives such horrific executions.
"Single women are mostly targeted because they are weak and have no one to support or defend them. Also if a woman does not marry or is widowed, usually is entitled to her father’s or husband’s property. In an attempt to get hold of the property, jealous relatives or villagers seek such illegal methods."
"Women who turn down sexual advances are also branded daayans," he adds.
However, it is not just women who are victims of such regressive practices.
Ryan Shaffer in a piece published in the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry writes, "In July 2012, an elderly man and his wife were forced to ingest human urine and excrement in Jharkhand. The two were accused of practicing witchcraft, which supposedly resulted in the death of local livestock. One month later in another village in the state, a man was pulled from his house and buried alive for allegedly practicing witchcraft. In 2013, an elderly man was forced to eat human excrement in Meghalaya, a state in northern India. He was accused of practicing witchcraft when four girls became sick and started having dreams about snakes. The villagers gathered together and decided on his punishment. The assistant village chief defended the action, saying after the event the girls’ health improved."
What is even more chilling is the fact that most of these incidents happen with the support of the entire village. A report in The Mint states a similar incident in the state in September 2009. An unmarried 37-year-old woman and her 60-year-old mother were killed because villagers thought they were witches.
The mother’s body was later found with marks on her neck suggesting she was hanged. The daughter’s body, however, was never found.
The News Minute had reported on Bihurama Ganju, a resident of Gurunjuli village along the Assam-Arunchal border who was beaten to death on July 3 by villagers for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Government records show that 66 women have been killed between 2005-mid 2013 in Assam.
Need for stricter legislation
There is a law is in place in some states to prevent such atrocities. The Prevention of Witch Practices Act, 2001 for example is a part of the Jharkhand state’s legislation, its implementation is very poor.
In July last year, Free Legal Aid Committee, an NGO in Jharkhand, made a demand for a National Law to control the menace in the country, especially against tribal and poor women. Kumar of ASHA, blames the government for its insensitivity towards the issue. "What do you expect from a state that has seen a change in chief ministers so frequently since the state was formed?" he asks. "There has been development in the state, but only in terms of infrastructure, that too the areas depending on which party is in power. The government only shows an interest where they can get money," Kumar further adds. Describing a incident from 2014, Kumar says that a woman was declared a witch in the Khunti panchayat.
The Panchayat asked her to pay Rs 2,00,000 lakh. The local police was even reluctant to take up the case. ASHA had to then contact the Superintendent of Police and only then was an FIR lodged.
Who can declare someone a witch?
Usually an Ojha, who is considered to practice white magic, that’s opposed to black-magic practiced by witches, brands a woman as a witch. Kumar says that there are two types of Ojhas usually. One is someone who has some knowledge of "jari-booti" or herbal medicines, and villagers usually approach them for health issues.
The second type is someone who has no such knowledge and just takes advantage of beliefs of people. The second kind is dangerous. What is needed at this hour is urgent awareness and stricter laws.
The present state law is ineffective because firstly, it is hardly implemented, and secondly, the punishment is too lenient. As Kumar points out, awareness can’t bear any fruitful results as long as the government does not make any significant effort to sensitise themselves and then the people.
An earlier version of this story was published on The News Minute on July 16, 2014.