As per the Cambridge Dictionary, witchcraft is the activity of performing magic to help or harm other people. Witch-hunting, on the other hand is defined as an attempt to find and punish people who are being blamed for something or have an unpopular opinion. But in most places, divine vengeance against women branded as witches and oppression, hostility and ill-treatment towards them in various forms summarizes the term ‘witch-hunting.’ The phenomenon of witch-hunting is a form of violence, violence mainly against women. Witch-hunting has been both instrumental in the changing gender relations, as well as constitutive of gender relations (Dev Nathan, 2013). This violence against women through witch-hunting seems to have had played a major role in the present day treatment of women. It has helped in establishing women’s subordination and also serves to continue to keep women subordinate. So we need to look at the history and extent of this problem, reasons for it and ways to cope with it. In this article, we shall see how women have forever been targeted through witch hunting - through its changing contexts and through the changing times and the underlying reasons for the same while in the second part we talk about ways to curb the problem in hand.
Let us first look at the history and extent of the problem.
Witch hunting has ever been present in the cultures of various countries and similarly its traces can be found in India as well, be it primitive age, medieval age, modern age and now industrial age. It has been noticed that the incidents which did not have a logical answer were thought to be the consequence of acts conducted by some women of the society who had supernatural powers. This concept was gradually bedded in the society and still has a mark on it. The prevalence of witch-hunting in India was commented on in the 19th Century by Col. Dalton and W. G. Archer who were British colonial administrators and European missionaries like S. Bodding. In the 20th Century, missionary and social worker J. B. Hoffman from Germany commented on the same. In an interview to Deutsche Welle, Indira Jaising, a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court, explains that Witchcraft is still widely believed to be practiced in India, though there is no such thing as witches in the country (Domínguez, 2015). In any case, it is mainly women who are the victims of violence and killings because of this practice and although superstition is staged to be the main rationale behind the killings, the atrocities are usually related to gender and class discrimination. In this context, the cases of self-styled religious leaders like Asaram Bapu, Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, etc. are revealing. Their disciples believe they have magical powers and go to seek medical treatment from them. They are under trial right now for having sexually abused girls during their so-called healing sessions. But they will not be branded a “witch.” The gender struggle can be seen here, because the same practices, if done by a woman could qualify as unnatural or inhuman worship. Whatever disputes there may be about the existence of witch practices by women, the denunciation and subsequent violence including killing cannot be denied.
As far as the extent of the problem is concerned, as per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the period from 2001 to 2012 averaged 168 witchcraft deaths per year in the country, the range of which was 114 to 242 deaths in 2004 and 2011 respectively. Thus, we can see that the death toll has been increasing, pointing on the need to research on the topic and find solutions. The states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal, Bihar, Haryana and Gujarat account for the highest number of deaths relating to witch-hunting. We can see that such cases are mostly concentrated in the tribal-dominated states of peninsular India (Dev Nathan, 2013). Even though these numbers are not trivial, it is important to understand that this data is probably an underestimate of the actual situation. This is because instances of witch-killing could well be listed under other categories, such as property disputes or sexual harassment and because of societal pressure most cases are not even reported. On an average one person is killed every third day in India in the name of witch hunting. (India, 2017). A large number of people affected by this practice makes it necessary to understand why it has continued even in considerably changed socio-economic and political circumstances and in the current era of development.
The reasons behind the incidents range from personal vendetta to lack of healthcare, patriarchal mindset, illiteracy and superstition. Let us look at some of the reasons in detail.
Property Issues –
Most often, it is about the denial of property rights to women. Witch-hunting truly is ‘the dark side of kinship’ (Dev Nathan, 2013). There are instances when people - especially widows - are targeted for their land and property. In different tribes, women have different rights to land. This ranges from as widows, ranging from the right to merely maintain the land to the right to full-use. When it comes to a widow without a son, the land automatically goes to the nearest male kin on the husband’s side. To take over the land immediately, these male kin with a claim over the land are often the ones who initiate witch accusations. Childless, unmarried or widowed women are particularly vulnerable to this form of violence. In many cases, it is seen that such rumors of being a witch are spread by the members of the same family to disinherit the women from family property. There are other cases where the victims claim that the ‘upper’ class people create such a situation to usurp their properties (Ananya, 2016). All these practices have led in establishing and re-establishing women’s economic dependence.
Illiteracy and taking advantage –
Women are made scapegoats for societal turpitudes like lack of water or infestation in the wells, famine, floods or drought. Many instances of blaming the women by male or female family members are done when no other justified reason for a wrong doing can be found (Singh, 2016). Many times, the accusations are centered on the losses that are suffered by a single family or a section of the family. Such losses could be related to economic issues, for example, loss of livestock or harvest; or the ill health or death of members of the family members through illness. Any misfortune is explained regarding the hostile intentions of a woman accused of using witchcraft to bring about misfortune (Dev Nathan, 2013). This thought process exists after these many years because of lack of proper education and awareness. These accusations are followed by killing the witch or driving her out of the village which eventually leads to the accusers taking over her land and property. The accused women are single or widows and thus, have little familial support and become easy victims. Thus, it becomes a convenient way to get some returns or accumulate property or money.
Lack of healthcare - Business for Ojhas –
Given that India has a shortage of professionals in community health centers and lower levels of education and awareness in all these areas, people’s belief in ojhas, who serve as medicine-men, is strong (Voices, 2017). In fact, according to the power hierarchy among tribals in these villages, there are three leaders—a political leader called Munda, a religious leader called devri and an ojha (Masoodi, 2014). The ojhas are often paid by local people to make the accusations as a way of settling a score or trying to take the property of the victim. Most witch killings follow a pattern, when something calamitous happens, the local priest or the ojha, goes into a trance and asks which spirit caused it and then which person the spirit was acting through (Hays, 2008). There are instances where women are branded as witches and need of pay a hefty amount or otherwise face the consequences. The lack of infrastructure has a part to play for the countless atrocities which include physical, mental and psychological torture that is inflicted on these vulnerable women across the different remote regions.
Due to their mental health issues or hormonal changes, some women behave differently and because much awareness and knowledge about these problems are not available in rural areas, they are seen as culprits of witchcraft. Girls who have such a medical condition are often taken for treatment to the local ojha to get the bad spirit out of her. This is the consequence of the failure of the state in providing a decent and universal health service to those who need it most and lack of awareness and education about such disabilities.
Women’s Subordination –
Sometimes accusations are imposed on women who question the social norms or openly voice their dislike for particular practices in the community like the sale of liquor or rejecting sexual advances from powerful men. Going in the line of work which is male-dominated from religious to entrepreneurial areas is also enough to trigger resentment against them. It has been seen that in the period of displacement of women-centered religious practices and their replacement by man-centered religious practices was when women’s’ religious practices were denounced as witchcraft for setting up masculine domination in the ritual and political spheres. The key aspect of this process was women not having a voice in governance. A pattern emerges which suggests that such practices are sometimes used to bring down independent, strong-willed women who may have challenged the status quo. By punishing those who are seen as vile and wild, oppressors perhaps want to send a not-so-subtle message to women: docility and domesticity get rewarded; anything else gets punished (Shaffer, 2014). Any woman, particularly one who is successful or part of a successful household, is in danger of being denounced and persecuted as a witch. This would inhibit women’s’ agency in taking initiatives for economic betterment (Dev Nathan, 2013). Thus, the impact of witch-hunting is not limited to the households and life of the accused witches but also to the entire population of women who live in constant fear of a similar thing happening to them and thus witch-hunting plays a role in keeping the women subordinated.
This article shows us how grave the problem of witch hunting is and how the reasons for the same are related to the day to day lives of the victims. In the next article we shall see how the problem can be resolved.
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Image source: https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/g201405/european-witch-hunts/
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