When Haseena’s* 16-year-old daughter was showing signs of mental illness, she first took her to a general physician. “My daughter is a Class 9 student, and her grades started dropping. She would talk to herself often, and started imagining things,” Haseena tells TNM. “I first took her to a doctor, but a friend told us that a djinn had possessed her. So I took her to a Moulana,” Haseena explains.
The Moulana that Haseena took her daughter to claimed that he could cure the girl with black magic. But for weeks, the man was sexually abusing the minor. When the family found out, they filed a police complaint, and the man claiming to be a black magician was arrested.
But this man is not the only one who exploited a family’s anxieties around a loved one’s mental illness – several people fall prey to con men who prescribe bizarre rituals and extract money, promising to ‘cure’ mental health issues.
A quick search online throws up the names of several black magic practitioners. One website says, “If you have any problem in your life because of others then use the art of black magic. Black magic by the specialist actually makes a person unable to use the mind; it puts a lock on the wisdom and intelligence of the person and thus the person feels a kind of mental block.”
Some of these websites come with black magic user testimonials, and some even offer 24x7 chat support. Most of them claim to help solve relationship problems, love spells, spells for a successful love marriage, decreasing your problems using black magic, increasing others’ problems using the same, using black magic to remove black magic, improve health etc.
TNM reached out on phone to several such black magic practitioners who advertise online, and posed as potential customers.
One ‘black magic specialist’ who claimed to be from Hyderabad on his website, said he was operating from Ajmer, Rajasthan. When asked for a black magic cure for a mental illness with symptoms of schizophrenia, he said, “This can definitely be cured, have faith. Send me the photo and details and I will tell you what kind of magic will suit best.”
He then went on to say that he did not want any money, but will accept any money that the customer would voluntarily give. “You only have to pay for the pooja materials, just PayTM me that money,” he said. However, before ending the phone call, the black magician enquired if the patient is financially well off.
TNM spoke to two other black magic specialists who were willing to resolve not just issues related to mental health, but also relationships and financial stability. All of them asked for a photograph and personal details of the person on whom black magic has to be done, and accepted online payments.
The easy accessibility to such ‘services’ means that many people with mental illnesses – already vulnerable – are made more vulnerable because of the stigma attached to medical treatment for mental health issues, say experts.
“People are gullible because they’re simply unaware of the symptoms of mental illnesses,” says Radhika Acharya, a psychologist at Deccan Hospital Somajiguda.
"When we went to the doctor, he said her condition is not serious and can be treated. He prescribed us some pills and told us to visit a psychiatrist. We did not know what the pills were meant for and thought that a dua would be enough to cure her. We have now started taking her to a proper doctor," says Haseena.
But it’s not just a question of awareness of education – even highly educated people resort to black magic promises. “It all boils down to belief structures that stem from one's religious beliefs,” says Rakesh Kumar Mishra, Professor and Head of the Center for Neural and Cognitive Sciences (CNCS) at the University of Hyderabad.
Experts say that people present with symptoms that could point to a mental illness, they should be taken to a local doctor or a family physician immediately. “When the initial symptoms of mental illnesses are left unchecked, they could become chronic. Many of these black magicians use sticks to beat the demon out of the patient, this would cause bodily harm and cause mental trauma, adding the initial problem," says Dr Praveen Kumar Chintapanti, Psychiatrist at Tranquil minds, Jubilee Hills.
"Schools and colleges have a huge role to play, there is a government rule that schools and colleges must have a counsellor, but how many of them follow that rule? Even if some institutions follow that rule, it’s only for namesake. They sometimes place an under or postgraduate student who is inexperienced to handle the children. The only way to combat practices such as black magic is by ensuring that children are made aware of mental health-related issues from a young age, mental health should be made part of the school curriculum," says Radhika.
While it’s important to make people aware about the right way to deal with mental health issues, it’s also important that law enforcement officials crack down on con men claiming to have a magic cure. However, Telangana does not have a law that tackles such superstitions. The police are also unaware that black magic services are now available online.
When asked about black magic practitioners soliciting customers online, Naveen Kumar, Inspector of police, Special Operations Team (SOT), Rachakonda commissionerate, says, "We are unaware about this but will definitely look into the matter and take up decoy operations to crack down on the practice. We book them under cheating for collecting huge amounts under the pretext of cheating. We have arrested several people for collecting money from people under the pretext of curing their health issues by doing some pooja. We take action not just when these instances get reported. Most of these specialists work through networking with known people, they will call them to a secluded place to do these kinds of poojas. We do awareness campaign but still people fall for this.”