Within the country where women are worshipped as goddesses, there is another India where women are branded witches and slaughtered. In 2005, a woman from a village in the state of Jharkhand was hacked to death by villagers for being a cause of illness. “Pay Rs 10.000 ( 150 euros, US$ 180) as a fine” she was told. As she failed to pay, she was beheaded before her family and burnt to destroy evidences.
In Indian villages, especially those in tribal dominated belts ( in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya pradesh, Chattisgarh) , any reason is enough to be considered as a witch : a personal slight, refusing advances, reluctance to sell land or bearing girl children. A woman guilty of these “charges” is likely to have her breasts chopped off, her teeth broken, limbs amputated, blinded and finally killed. “Since the cops, the priests and few powerful men are hand in glove, the procedure is carried out with utmost precision. So much so that the villagers ( including the women) are thankful that the evil spirit has been exorcised.”
There are endless instances where women have been called witches, stripped, shaven and made to make rounds of the village and even eat and drink their own urine and excreta. In the south ot the state of Rajasthan, in the tribal dominated region of Vagad, it has been seen that women are branded witches. If not killed, many times they commit suicide. Only few cases are reported. ” Most of these cases are unrecorded or are registered under mental or physical harassment” says an activist who has worked extensively among the tribals in the state of Gujarat.
Most of the villagers, even members of the victim’s family, remain silent spectators. “We have to follow our tradition. We cannot go against what has been happening down the ages. Even those who think that this is wrong seldom raise a voice as nobody dares go against the tradition and the diktat of the witch-doctor” says a villager. In the tea plantations of West Bengal, more than 85 women have been killed for practising “witchcraft”, these last 13 years.
Despite such practices being obviously prohibited, a low literacy rate and an ailing public health structure has made the law almost meaningless. “There are dozens of remote villages in the state which are steeped in poverty and superstition, where villagers have never seen a school or even a doctor. How do you expect them to comprehend the law ?” asks a social worker from Jharkhand. So, a number of victims of witch-hunting have now taken up cudgels for spreading awareness about the ills of this tradition, making women aware of their rights. But only a sweeping social reform can uproot this system. Witch-hunting has its roots in gender injustice. One cannot expect to improve the situation of these women in a country where their ratio in the total population is declining, where women are considered as second-class citizens.