Killings in the name of witchcraft

Karthik Navayan

[A February, 2010 article in Oneworld South Asia gives us an idea about the scale of the problem of 'witch-hunting' in rural India: 'Statistics on witch-hunting crimes compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) are a cause of concern. The NCRB reported that in 2007, 177 cases of witchcraft-related murders were reported from the above mentioned states (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa). Jharkhand had the dubious distinction of reporting 50 witchcraft- related murders, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 33; Haryana at 30; Orissa with 28; Madhya Pradesh with 14, Chhattisgarh with 8 and Gujarat with only one reported case.' 

Other news reports say: 'Between 2001 and 2008, 452 women were killed in Jharkhand, according to a report by an NGO, Association for Social and Human Activities'

As with all other instances of atrocities, obviously, what is being recorded by activists, noticed by officialdom and reported in the mainstream media represents only a mere tiny fragment of what's actually happening. Karthik Navayan, who has studied a few cases of witch-hunting in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh, shares his thoughts on the issue in this article-- Round Table India]

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Not just a legislation - Political will is needed to fight it

We know people are killed in the name of factions, and 'encounters', but the number of people branded and killed as sorcerers is also of a similar scale. Literacy doesn't seem to make a difference to people's thinking: not only the illiterate but even the educated encourage belief in such superstitions. As society itself is producing this kind of 'sorcerers', the very society must put an end to such superstitious beliefs. 

Dr. Ambedkar had said, the villages in our country are full of illiteracy, foolishness, and factions. The atmosphere in village society hasn't been conducive for change right from Ambedkar's time. Some people in the villages are exploiting the beliefs of the common people in the notions of devils, mantras etc. The notion of god itself is the root of all superstition. So first of all, we have to strike at this root and only then will we be able to remove all such superstitions.

There are social, political, economic, psychological, health related reasons connected to superstitions like Banamathi, Chillangi etc. Most of the victims of all such types of oppressive practices are Dalits. 90 percent of people who are killed in the name of Banamathi (Witchcraft) are also Dalit Bahujan. Killing dalits in the name of Banamathi  is a part of caste-based oppression.

Can an illiterate Dalit chant Sanskrit mantras? Is it possible? Or is it possible for a Brahmin who captured Sanskrit and education since ages?

Women are the victims

In most of the cases, women are the victims; that too women belonging to Dalit Bahujan castes. One Dalit woman belonging to Kannepalli village of Luxettipet mandal, Adilabad district was killed by non-dalits who suspected her to be a sorcerer. They did not spare even her husband and children: the whole family of 5 members was killed.

In some cases, if women had properties in their names, their own family members projected those women as sorcerers and killed them. And in other instances, some dalit women were exploited and if some of them refused to yield, they were branded as sorcerers, paraded in the nude, and later killed. In one instance, one Dalit family head was killed in the name of practicing sorcery just because he refused to vote for a particular party.

Even the superstitions are used as oppressive methods against dalits and dalit women. There are several interconnected social, political and economic causes for the continued existence of these superstitions.

No Health Services

People in rural India are dying of minor diseases due to lack of proper medical facilities. Illiteracy and ignorance are adding fuel. If somebody in a family gets ill, there is a tendency among ignorant villagers to suddenly doubt the family's immediate enemy. Doubts about their enemies having practised sorcery some times lead to a sort of mass hysteria, and even murder in rural areas. If living conditions, through development, are improved, superstitions in the villages can be reduced to some extent at least.

Mental reasons

The inferiority complex engendered by caste oppression affects the behaviour of many villagers. The scientific reasons for abnormal behavior, in an overwhelmingly superstitious society, have to be studied.

Ilamma (60) belonged to a Scheduled Caste (Mala). She had a husband, a daughter and a son. The whole village (Jukal village, Chityala mandal, Warangal district in Telangana region) believed she was a sorcerer and held her responsible if the buffaloes stopped giving milk, or if children fell ill. In the year 2000, villagers boycotted her family. In due course, her daughter-in-law, also started projecting Ilamma as a sorcerer, probably because she felt the old woman was a heavy burden to feed, and held her responsible for her father's death. Ilamma left the village and went to her sister's place in Bethikal village, Huzurabad mandal, in Karimnagar district. After three years, one night in 2003, the village suspected that Ilamma had placed lemons before a few houses. The villagers, reportedly, searched Ilamma's house and found some lemons and turmeric powder in a bag. The furious villagers made her eat human excreta, they accused Ilamma of wandering around the village, at midnight, on amavasya and pournami days.

If the accusations of villagers were true, what could be the reasons behind her behaviour? She may be suffering from some mental illness. Who in the village could analyse and explain these things to the people? Is there any official in the village Panchayat, Hospital or Revenue department who has some understanding of these things? Civil society and the government has that responsibility but they could not discharge that responsibility.

As of now, there is nobody to feed Ilamma. She can't toil. She is still alive like a living corpse with torn clothes and hunger in Sirsapally of Huzurabad mandal. So many Ilammas are being victimized by the negligent attitude of society.

Still society's eyes remain closed. There is a need to enact a law at the national level against these kinds of superstitions. This is one kind of violation of human rights. But the central government is not prepared to do that. As these kinds of violations are being committed at village level the states should deal with them at state level, it opines. However, these types of superstitions are spread all over the country, so a central law is very much needed. Bihar state government recognized the necessity and brought the Prevention of Witch Practices Act -1999. Rajasthan Women's Commission chairperson Pawan Surana proposed to the state government to enact a similar legislation. The law in Bihar punishes a person who brands anybody as a sorcerer with imprisonment. Similar legislations need to be brought in all the states including Andhra Pradesh.

The Women and Girls (Prevention of Stripping, Teasing, Molestation, Branding as Witches and Offering as Devadasis) Bill, 2003 is still pending-- if this bill is discussed and accepted as an act, it would be more useful because it lays down the death penalty as the punishment. Some rights organizations who oppose death penalty are opposing this bill.

Naxalite Movement is strong in Telangana area for more than half a century. However in every village of Telangana, killings and atrocities in the name of sorcery have occurred. There is a need to rectify the mistakes and relentless efforts should be made to foster cultural enlightenment. These efforts have happened only in the plains, but not in Agency areas where Kolam, Gond, Khond, Koya tribals live. In the tribal areas, people who are believed to be magic men are treated with great respect and honour.

The one legislation that is available to punish the charlatans who deceive people is The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954. If this act is properly implemented, most Babas, Swamijees, fake hermits would end up behind the bars. But some people in the government are encouraging such Babas and Swamijees and this act is not sufficient to solve all the problems. So there is need for a special legislation at the national level.

The High Court of Andhra Pradesh delivered a sensational judgment on 3rd October 2007. The details of the case: in Timmapur village, Sangem mandal, Warangal district on 2nd August 2000, all the villagers caught Kolkanuri Yellaiah, Kolkanuri Rajamma, Merolla Upakantha, Velpula Narsamma, and Settiboina Ilumallu. All the five were beaten brutally and later burnt alive alleging that all of them were practicing witchcraft. Warangal district court dismissed this case on 9th June 2003 stating that there were no proper evidences. Police appealed to the High Court. The Division bench consisting of Justice K.C.Banu and D.S.R Verma gave their verdict: life sentence to 19 accused, leaving others as innocent. At least 19 killers were punished. We have to appreciate the efforts of the police in this case. If they show the same enthusiasm in each and every case, more such incidents can be prevented.

If government really has the political will and commitment to prevent killings in the name of sorcery, it should launch a continuous campaign against this superstition. It is well and good if it creates a permanent mechanism for that at state level. The Departments like police, revenue, education and health should organize special programmes against these practices. Every Panchayat should take up special programs. The government should take up preventive measures and allocate adequate funds.

All the killings in the name of sorcery have happened due to the negligent attitude of the government. Most of the attacks are being committed against Dalits. Hence cases against perpetrators can be booked under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act – 1989, and preventive measures can be taken. However, cases are being registered only under IPC and not under SC/ST (POA) Act, thus helping the culprits.

Finally, there is a need for a legislation at the national level for the protection of woman, Dalits and other poor sections of the society to deal with situations of this kind. There is also an urgent need to create a mechanism for the proper implementation of the law. The government should launch a continuous campaign against these superstitions. This can be actualized only if people and government, with a strong political will, work together.


Karthik Navayan is a human rights activist. Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar

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