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The adivasi, the colonial and the great Indian witch hunt

Dr Shashank Shekhar Sinha tells Pawanpreet Kaur that witch-hunting in India has a complex relationship with the socio-political experience of adivasis through history.

A tribal woman accused of being a witch in Rajasthan
hat are the key areas you seek to highlight through your analysis of adivasi movements and the politics of witch-hunting?

A. This topic forms a part of my larger book project (work-in-progress), which explores the politics of witch-hunting in Chotanagpur/Jharkhand over the last 200 years. The larger argument I am trying to make is that the world of spirits and witches was not a dead, insular domain. It intersected closely with changes in the socio-political milieu to acquire varied meanings and forms. The presence of different agents and forces with specific interests and locations—the colonial administration, ethnographers and anthropologists, adivasi patriarchs and reformers, witch doctors, caste-Hindus, Christian missionaries, and the post-colonial ‘development’ regime—invested the world of spirits and witches with an intensely political character.

Q. How does your study differ from the existing discourses on witch-hunting?

A. There is no single academic book dealing exclusively with the long-term (colonial and post-colonial) history of witch-hunting in any region in India. My study work treats witch-hunting as a multi-layered phenomenon and highlights its changing contours. I explore the role of different agents and forces in the making of a witch and examine a range of issues connected with the changing contours of witch hunting — constructions of witchcraft; politics of conversion; Hinduisation of the adivasis; politics of folklore; questions violence; impact of post-colonial developmental regime.

Q. Can you very briefly touch upon the major adivasi movements in the period you have undertaken to study?

A. This section focuses on the movements between 1850s-1930s involving Santhals, Mundas, Hos and Oraons. It covers the Santhal Hul, movements surrounding 1857, Kherwar, Sardar, Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan, Tana Bhagat, Hari baba and the regional and ethnic movements that became important in the 1930s.

Q. What was the nature of the interaction between these movements and the world of witchcraft?

A. It was a complex interaction. All movements denounced spirits and witches. It is however interesting to note how the leaders of the various movements used the language, imagery, and symbolism associated with that world. Their engagements with spirits and witches should not be just seen as simplistic reflections of a negative consciousness or a pristine desire for reform. They demonstrate how the politics of the supernatural could acquire complex meanings at times—sometimes anti-colonial, sometimes sectarian, and sometimes patriarchal— depending on the trajectory of the movement and leadership.

I explore the role of different agents and forces in the making of a witch and examine a range of issues connected with the changing contours of witch hunting.
Q. What was the influence of different agencies such as the colonial administration, ethnographers, anthropologists, reformers and missionaries on the world of witch-hunting?

A. Witch-hunting was closely linked to the colonial administration’s effort to extend political and juridical domain; missionaries’ zeal to ‘civilise the pagan’; and ethnographers’ and anthropologists’ ardour to primitivise the adivasis. The compilation and documentation of the folklore related to witchcraft by the administrators, ethnographers, and missionaries and its frequent reproduction in gazetteers, administrative reports and official literature also gave a formal definition and structure to what otherwise constituted a scattered set of beliefs.

Q. Do you think witch-hunting contributed to the anti-colonial character of the adivasi movements?

A. This is an argument I make in the context of witch killings during 1856-57. The years preceding the Rebellion were marked by a systematic tirade against witch killings and they eventually began to be equated with ‘murder’ (in 1853), and became punishable by the death sentence. This led to a lot of resistance and such hunts were driven underground. The adivasis had looked upon the local holders as people to provide them protection against witches and sorcerers. Thus the belief that the witches were flourishing and multiplying under the benign influence of the British started gaining ground. When law and order was suspended in the region during the events surrounding the Hul and 1857, many accused of witchcraft were killed. It was an attempt to reclaim a social space lost/restricted by the presence of colonial administration.

Q. Can you talk at length about Birsa Munda and his movement in the light of witchcraft?

A. Birsa Munda’s movement condemned spirit-veneration and witchcraft. He assumed the position of an incarnate of Khasra Kora, who had destroyed the Asurs (blacksmiths). According to a folklore asur kahani, the Asurs were credited with introducing evil spirits in the Munda religion. What is also interesting is how he uses stories related to Singabonga (the presiding spirit) to become a healer, preacher, messenger of Singabonga and finally the Dharti Aba (Father of the Earth). Later, during the period of armed resistance against the British, we come across songs mentioning witches as one of the three principal enemies of the Mundas, along with Europeans and other castes.

Q. You also argue that in the period between 1930 and 1960 there was a general scaling down of witch-hunting. What were the reasons for this?

A. Let me clarify this a bit. The belief in witchcraft continued to remain strong and witchcraft was also acquiring new meanings, though there was a decline in witch killings. While legislation, Christian missionaries, adivasi reform movements (inspired by Hindu ideas of purity) and the realisation that such practices were considered socially degrading played a part, what I also explore is the role of ethno-regionalism. Adivasi Mahasabha (1938) and later Jharkhand Party (1950) (with mainly Christianised adivasis as followers) were trying to forge a pan-adivasi collective which implied toning down internal tensions (witch killings included). The strains generated by the post-colonial developmental regime led to a new wave of witch killings in 1970s-1980s onwards.

Q. What is the nature of witch-hunting in India as we know it today?

A. There has been dispersion in the nature of witch hunts. Land and property disputes, notions of power, spurning of sexual advances, domestic squabbles, and family feuds have become very common factors. The site and territoriality of witch hunts have changed — they are no longer a phenomenon internal to a tribe but have become village affairs. Previously the accuser and accused formed a part of the same tribe. The violence inflicted on the accused has become layered and recurring and incidents of rape, physical torture or disfigurement of women’s bodies are fast emerging as new dynamics in witch hunts.

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