“They didn’t ask, they threatened us till we [falsely] confessed,” said Muthangi Amrutha, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Kolkur village of the Sadashivpet mandal in Telangana’s Sangareddy district. On June 17, the local congregation tied her and her husband to a tree in the middle of the village and assaulted them for nearly eight hours, under the misconception that they were practising witchcraft. Amrutha narrated the events that transpired on that day to TNM. At around 8 am, Amrutha (35) and her husband Yadayya (40) were accosted and beaten outside their local church by eight members of the congregation, who accused them of practising witchcraft (chetabadulu).
The confession was forced out of the Madiga Christian couple initially by their own caste group, who mistakenly believed that they had been chanting ‘mantras’. The group assaulted Amrutha and Yadayya outside the church early in the morning and then took them to the gram panchayat office, where a larger crowd had gathered. The residents of the village then tied the couple, along with Shyamalamma — another Madiga Christian resident falsely accused of practising witchcraft — by their feet to a tree and beat them repeatedly with sticks and stones from around 8 am to 4.30 pm. The torture ended only when the police intervened at around 5 pm. Among other claims, the villagers — those who bore witness and those who actively participated in the assault — accused the couple of causing a buffalo to fall sick through witchcraft, and Shyamalamma of causing a young man’s death by suicide a few years ago through similar means.
“We kept saying we had nothing to do with witchcraft, but they didn’t listen. They said if we didn’t admit to it, they would pour petrol and set us on fire. We finally admitted to witchcraft even though we had nothing to do with it, as the pain was too much to bear,” said Amrutha.
The Kolkur incident wasn’t an isolated one. Activists opposing superstitious beliefs by promoting scientific thinking in the Telugu states say that in the last 10 years, at least 300 cases of ‘witchcraft’ accusations and misbelief have surfaced in Telangana, with many other instances going unreported. These accusations usually emerge as explanations for either simple accidents, or complex situations concerning mental health. The victims who face these accusations and consequent persecution are typically either Dalits or members of Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities, with women among them suffering the worst, according to Ramesh Babu, a member of the scientific organisation Jana Vignana Vedika. In the absence of dedicated laws to tackle the problem, activists blame authorities for not doing enough to curb crimes stemming from superstitious beliefs.
On Tuesday, June 20, Amrutha sat hext to her elder daughter at the Sangareddy Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] office, as activists from the Kula Vivaksha Porata Samithi (KVPS) and journalists asked her questions. She had come to the district headquarters along with her two daughters to meet the Additional Collector of Sangareddy.
When asked about the churchgoers’ animosity towards her family, Amrutha mentioned that on one occasion, her elder daughter, a person with disabilities, wet herself while the church prayers were ongoing. Since then, the couple and their two daughters stopped going to the church except on special occasions, because of the girl’s health, Amrutha explained.
“While beating us, they asked why we didn’t attend church anymore. We have our own circumstances [which are stopping us],” said Yadayya to TNM. During last week’s assault, Yadayya was accused of colluding with another resident Shyamalamma, who herself had been accused of witchcraft by the village residents around 10 years ago. However, the underpinning of contempt for the family who wasn’t visiting the church frequently came through from the couple’s statements, though the ostensible reason for the violence was witchcraft.
“Dalit Christians have been asked time and again to prove their loyalty to the church,” said Murali Karnam, assistant professor of law at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University, Hyderabad.
On Tuesday, June 20, after the couple took up the issue with the Sangareddy Additional Collector G Veera Reddy, eight people were arrested and sent to judicial remand under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, Yadayya alleged that not everyone involved in the violence was arrested. Patotla Ramireddy, a resident of Kolkur from the dominant Reddy caste had also allegedly beaten the trio, but wasn’t named in the FIR. Ashok, the district president of Kula Vyatireka Porata Samithi (KVPS), further noted that the sarpanch’s house was right next to the gram panchayat office, and questioned how he could have been unaware of the violence that was perpetrated throughout the day and why he failed to stop it.
While the involvement of the sarpanch or the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) wasn’t confirmed by the police in this case, Murali remarked that it was highly unlikely that the local leaders were unaware. “In such cases, the political economy of the village is at play from the top-down. I have heard of cases where lowered caste individuals were accused of witchcraft by dominant castes because roosters or hens had died. These are important assets for people residing in a village. Village elders would often organise prayers, call some ‘godman’ or the other to get rid of ‘evil forces’ and demand money from everyone in the village for the very purpose,” he said.
Organisations such as Jana Vignana Vedika have identified superstition as a serious problem in the Telugu states and have been working towards popularising scientific and rational thought for years. Ramesh, a member of Jana Vignana Vedika, told TNM that over the last 10 years, 300 cases of witchcraft have come to light in Telangana. “Invariably, witchcraft or sorcery is used as an excuse to explain away either simple, everyday phenomena — like animals falling sick or someone falling down a flight of stairs, or more complex concerns of mental health,” he explained.
Ramesh narrated how in 2019, a young woman in Vikarabad suffering from clinical depression was made to walk on burning coals by a self-proclaimed godman who claimed he could ‘cure’ her. “Her family was convinced that she was possessed by an evil spirit,” he recalled.
Murali, who was previously associated with the Human Rights Forum (HRF), looked into nearly 150 cases of witchcraft accusations between 1997 and 2000. “Cases of death being attributed to superstitions were common in villages of erstwhile Medak, Mahabubnagar, and Nizamabad districts. In a family of four, if one was accused, it was incumbent on the other three to prove that they weren’t involved in witchcraft. In some cases, people were even forced to kill their own parents by local leaders. These instances were common in Narayankhed town of present-day Sangareddy district and also other Telangana districts bordering Karnataka,” he said.
Ramesh said that such incidents continue to occur more often than reported. “Each year, at least 20 cases emerge where people are accused of witchcraft,” he said. He argued that victims in such cases are invariably Dalits or the most backward castes among the OBCs like Chakali or Vadderas and even among those, women suffer the most.
When asked about superstitious beliefs among the Telugu Christian community, Ramesh said, “In the last few years, there have been several cases of pastors subscribing to superstitious beliefs. They jump up in the air, start shouting and saying things like ‘Deyyam velli po’ (Demon, go away).”
Yadayya maintained that the priest of his church has frequently dismissed superstitious beliefs and wasn’t against rational thinking. However, it is evident from the assault that such beliefs still run deep among the residents of Kolkur. There are no laws in Telangana concerning superstitious beliefs, which could help alleviate the distress of those accused of witchcraft. Forty organisations including Jana Vignana Vedika have written to the state government asking for such a law, but no steps have been announced in this direction so far.
Ramesh remarked that even police officials are rendered helpless in the absence of a law to deal with the issue. “The most the police can do is employ some section of the IPC, in cases where the victim is beaten or killed. What else can they do?” he asked.
In the Kolkur incident too, the police had to rely on IPC sections to build the case. The FIR was registered under sections 307 (attempt to murder), 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman), and 504 (provides punishment for insulting someone intentionally to provoke them) read with section 34 (acts done by several people in furtherance of a common intention) of the IPC. But the lack of separate legislation such as the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, renders the problem persistent in Telangana. Other states including Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Assam, and Karnataka too have enacted laws against superstitious practices.
Following the Kolkur assault incident, the Additional Collector of Sangareddy has ordered the Sadashivpet MRO to conduct an awareness program against superstitious beliefs in Kolkur village and to warn residents that if such violence persisted, strict action would be taken. However, Ramesh remains sceptical.
“Suspicion alone is enough to target marginalised people over ‘witchcraft’. Without any ordinance or law to tackle superstitious beliefs, the problem will only get worse if the state government doesn’t address the issue soon and take strict action against self-proclaimed godmen and others who promote such ideas,” concluded Ramesh Babu, suggesting that prejudice and superstition have remained more potent than reason in many parts of Telangana.