The brutal killing of three tribal women in a village in West Midnapore district on accusations of practicing witchcraft by a village group on October 18, 2012 highlights the myriad ways in which the fairer sex is oppressed and exploited. Particularly rampant in the tribal areas of central and eastern India, branding women from marginalised and weaker sections of the society (more than often their own community members are in collusion with the privileged and powerful) as witches is a common practice.
According to the National Crime Record Bureau data, since 2008, 768 women have been murdered for practicing witchcraft. Their numbers are adding up each year. A Zee Research Group (ZRG) analysis shows that states like Karnataka and Chhattisgarh that reported zero and eight murders respectively in 2010 due to witchcraft has shown a disturbing increase in just one year. While Karnataka reported an increase of 77 cases in 2011, Chattisgarh increased from eight to 17 cases in 2011.
Superstition defines societal mindset against women in many forms, Ranjana Kumari, President of centre for social research, Delhi says, “India has a patriarchal society and women here are tortured in the name of many myths and taboos. Crimes relating to witch hunting are basically committed against the women by family members along with the village authorities and so, State’s responsibility towards the victim is highly necessary but unfortunately the increasing trends of tortures show that the government has actually failed to act against this heinous crime.”
Ignorance on mental disorders and other physical ailments further feeds into puritan mindset. “It is really very unfortunate that women who behave differently due to their mental health or hormonal changes are often taken as culprits of witchcrafts and thus, face tremendous tortures,” she adds.
ZRG analysis shows Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, traditionally unsafe states for women, lead in crimes under the category of witchcraft.
Adding a perspective on how woman is always misunderstood and used for selfish desires, Professor Bula Bhadra, a sociologist from Kolkata says, “We see that women who stay, are widow or estranged are the favourite targets for the culprits who kill women in the allegedly for Witch hunting as the society believes that women who are self sustained have no right to live and so, all their property and belonging should be easily snatched from them by giving an excuse of Witch hunting.”
Adding to the crisis is lack of a national law to check cases against witchcraft. Currently, witch-hunting and offenders of witch hunting cases are registered under sections 302, 320, 351, 354, 364 (A), 503 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Most witch-hunting cases are dealt under section 323 of the IPC.
In a move to tackle the problem, the Union cabinet recently approved Rajasthan government’s bill called Rajasthan Women (Prevention & Protection from Atrocities) Bill, 2011 that lays down stringent penalties for those who harass or assault women by branding them “witches”. Section 4 of the draft Rajasthan Women (Prevention & Protection from Atrocities) Bill, 2011, says that whoever maligns or accuses a woman of being a “Dayan or Dakan or Dakin, Chudail or Bhootni or Bhootdi or Chilavan or Opri or Randkadi” (all terms denoting a woman who practices witchery) will be punished with a prison term extending up to three years, along with a fine that can go up to Rs 5,000. The bill will soon be tabled in the assembly.
Since 2001, Jharkhand has also enacted a state law called “Jharkhand Dayan Pratha (witchcraft) Act” to rein in the crime, but it has been proved more effete than effective.