Ground report: The endless violence in Telangana against people branded ‘sorcerers’

In the latest violent incident in Telangana over superstitious beliefs, Ramesh Boyini and his wife Rajitha were tied to a pole and assaulted by a neighbour’s family for performing ‘sorcery’.
Police at the scene of attack after rescuing the victims
Police at the scene of attack after rescuing the victims
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Alladurg, a village in Telangana’s Medak district with a population of just over 12,000, recently made headlines when a daily wage labourer couple was subjected to a violent attack. The husband and wife were tied to a pole and assaulted by a neighbour’s family for performing “sorcery”. Videos and photos of a bruised and bleeding Boyini Ramesh (40) and his wife Rajitha (32) surfaced on social media and in news reports raising concerns.

The incident took place on the morning of February 14 even as crowds of local residents stormed the spot after hearing the news. Five people, including two women, thrashed the couple for nearly half-an-hour resulting in injuries in sensitive parts. While the locals did not try to stop the atrocity fearing consequences, the couple were rescued by an understaffed police team from the local police station, which is just minutes away from the location.

Colony in which incident took place

Last week, TNM visited Alladurg and met the victims as well as the family members of the people who attacked them. The flashpoint for the barbaric act seems to be the prolonged illness of 60-year-old Boyini Kishtaiah, a mason. The man has reportedly been sick for the last few months, with severe chest pain and shortness of breath. According to his family, he is a smoker. The police said that though Kishtaiah was being treated by a local private medical practitioner, his family members, who already suspected Ramesh and Rajitha of performing sorcery against them, resorted to a public attack. Both the families hail from the same community – Mudhiraj – categorised as Backward Class.

Kishtaiah’s three sons Nagesh (25), Nagaraj (22) and Bethayya (20), Kishtaiah’s wife Ashamma (55) and daughter Andamma (38) are the main accused in the case. Interestingly, Nagesh is a graduate and works as a daily wage labourer, Nagaraj has studied till intermediate while Bethayya is a school dropout who works as a daily wage labourer.

On the night of February 13, Ramesh was carrying a toddy bottle while coming back home from work. Apparently in an inebriated state, Ramesh accidentally spilled some of the toddy while he was passing by Ashamma. This prompted her to think that he did it as part of some sorcery on her family and complained to her sons, who were already suspecting Ramesh of the same for the last few months.

The next day, as Rajitha was busy in chores around the house she was callously dragged out and marched to a pole, where she was tied up. Minutes later, Ramesh too was forcefully pulled out from their single room house.

In about 15-20 minutes of the assault, a Sub Inspector of Police (SI),  an Assistant Sub Inspector of Police (ASI) and a constable reached the spot after receiving a 100 emergency call and rescued the couple.

No one dared to intervene

The ASI told TNM that it was only after their arrival at the scene that the couple were freed and sent to a hospital in Jogipet for treatment. Based on the victims’ statement, a case was registered against the five people involved and they were sent to judicial remand after being presented before a local court.

Rajitha said, “Everyone saw us being thrashed but no one tried to rescue us until the police came.” She added, “We pleaded with them (the accused family) to kill us, instead they asked us to pour petrol and burn ourselves.”

When TNM asked local residents why they didn’t stop the assault, they said Kishtaiah’s family accused them of siding with sorcery and asked if they would take the responsibility for whatever happens to their father.

Narrow path that leads to both victims' and accused houses.

Tulja Indira, an elected gram panchayat ward member, said, “People tried to pacify and stop them but they were angry. Even I tried, but they didn’t listen to me.”

When Sudha, Ramesh’s brother’s wife, tried to stop the attack, Kishtaiah’s three sons hit her too due to which she sustained injuries to the head.

When asked if there was any past history of conflict between the two families, Sudha said that Kishtaiah’s family had been making the sorcery allegations for long. 

When TNM visited Kishtaiah’s house, he was lying down and his other daughter, Nirmala, was looking after him. While he believes that he was a victim of the sorcery done by Ramesh and Rajitha, his daughter backed his claim.

Nirmala said, “Our father was very active until recently, it was only after their witchcraft on our family that his health deteriorated.”

When this reporter asked what made her believe such an activity was done, she said, “Every full moon day, there used to be lemons and red chillies beside kumkum (vermilion) and turmeric in our house premises. Ramesh used to plant them to cause us harm.”

However, neither she nor others in the family have any evidence to prove that Ramesh had indulged in this “mischievous” activity.

Baseless allegations

When TNM visited Ramesh and Rajitha, they were back home just after being discharged from hospital.

According to the couple, they got married 12 years ago and migrated to Hyderabad. While Ramesh found work as a security guard, Rajitha was employed as a domestic worker. Their two kids went to a government school. It was during the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 that both of them lost their jobs and moved back to the village, only to face exclusion and baseless allegations of sorcery.

It must be noted that migrant labourers across the country were forced to move back to their hometowns due to widespread unemployment following the sudden nationwide lockdown in 2020. A report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) observed that more than 40 crore informal workers in India might be pushed deeper into poverty after losing their jobs and livelihood sources due to the pandemic.

Ramesh said, “We returned thinking that we will do some work here as we lost our jobs due to COVID. While we’re managing to get some work, these accusations keep disturbing us.”

Ramesh and Rajitha in conversation with TNM at their residence soon after their discharge from the hospital.

Ramesh now works as a cleaner in an eatery while Rajitha works as a construction labourer in nearby villages. Rajitha said it was fortunate that their sons were not present when they were attacked. While their elder son (11) studies in a residential welfare school, the younger one (6) lives with them. “It would’ve been awful if my kids had witnessed the treatment meted out to us. We came home only after the police assured us security.”

According to Rajitha, about six months ago another family in the neighbourhood had also publicly accused them of doing sorcery, but at the time local police had counselled them.

Decades of harassment

Ramesh said his father, Boyini Bhoomaiah who died in 2014, was also accused of sorcery by the same neighbours. He said, “Even when I was young, I remember my father being blamed whenever someone fell ill due to some health issues. As my father is no more, now they have shifted the blame on me and my wife.”

Ramesh said that once a group of men brutally attacked his father on similar charges and broke his teeth.

A senior citizen told TNM that people believed that Bhoomaiah possessed powers to perform witchcraft on others.

Never-ending saga of violence over superstitious beliefs

The attack on Ramesh and Rajitha is the latest in a series of violent incidents in the Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which have a significant prevalence of superstitious beliefs.

Residence of the accused in the attack on couple.

In September 2019, a 24-year-old man was allegedly lynched before being burnt alive at Shamirpet, in the outskirts Hyderabad.

It may be recalled in November 2020, a software engineer was burnt alive by his own relatives on suspicion of doing black magic.

In January last year, Alekhya (27) and Sai Divya (22) were bludgeoned to death in Andhra’s Madanapalle, allegedly by their parents Padmaja and Purushottam Naidu, as part of a ritual. The accused reportedly believed their dead daughters would be resurrected.

Last month, three members of a family, including a seven-year-old girl, were found dead in Ameenpur in the outskirts of Hyderabad in what is suspected to be part of an occult ritual.

In another incident last month, a man and his two sons were hacked to death by a group of men over allegations of sorcery in Jagitial district.

Lack of law

In the Alladurg case, Mohan Reddy, Sub Inspector (SI) and Investigation Officer (IO), said that the accused have been charged with attempt to murder (307), criminal trespass (441), punishment for rioting (147), 148 (rioting with deadly weapons) and outraging the modesty of woman (354) under the Indian Penal Code.

However, human rights activists believe that there should be a stringent law to deal with crimes exacerbated by superstitious beliefs. Well-known rationalist and humanist Babu Gogineni said that there is a need for a law with special provisions to deal with such crimes.

According to him, recognising a crime relating to superstition as a special category requires a swift response from social workers, educators and of course the police.

He said, “Whoever levels an allegation of sorcery or witchcraft against anyone else should be charged with attempt to murder or inciting others to commit murder.”

He added, “In a rural setting, the local Sarpanch and other elected ward members should be held accountable for every violent crime related to superstition – just like college principals are for ragging incidents in their institutions. As we know, once the accountability was fixed, those very persons given the authority to act worked against the ugly practice, and as a consequence soon college ragging almost disappeared.”

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