For 40-year-old Bahura Bai it began as these things often do in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. First, a village girl she had affectionately caressed in the marketplace fell sick. Then, a year later, her brother-in-law developed an ailment.
That was all it took for some local shamans and village leaders to brand Bai a witch. The threats and abuse from her family and community began instantly.
“It got worse in November last year, when my brother-in-law and other relatives attempted to choke me,” she explains from inside her mud and brick home. “They want to kill me. They believe I’m a sorcerer. In prayers, I ask my goddess every morning, ‘am I really?”’
“If my sister-in-law had her way she would love to burn me alive. My nephew wants to cut me into small pieces. Only my husband supports me,” she continues, before urging me to leave in case my presence angers the villagers and inspires reprisals.
“The village heads don’t want the police or media meddling. They say it’s an internal affair of the village,” she explains.
Drooping branches and bags of rice
Recently, family members of a 55-year-old woman beat her to death in the Bemetara district of Chhattisgarh for practicing ‘black magic’. Activists say she was pulled by her hair, dragged naked through the streets and had chili powder sprinkled onto her face and genitals until she died.
Thousands of women across India have been abused, tortured and even executed after being accused of being a witch. But Chhattisgarh – where a decades-old conflict between Maoist rebels and the state has uprooted tribal societies riddled with misogynistic violence and superstition – is particularly deadly.
If my sister-in-law had her way she would love to burn me alive. My nephew wants to cut me into small pieces. Only my husband supports me
Between 2001 and 2013, there were 1,500 witch trials here and 210 associated murders.
But this is a crime that extends beyond this troubled place.
The Indian government’s latest figures suggest that, between 2000 and 2012, some 2,100 people, mostly women, were killed across the country after being accused of practicing witchcraft. But rights groups suggest the number could be higher as many of the victims’ families refuse to lodge an official complaint and some deaths simply go unreported.
Those cases often get addressed at village level, within illegal village courts that refuse to involve the police because doing so might undermine their authority.
In remote parts of the country, these courts and village heads are often left alone to ignore the state’s Witchcraft Atrocities (Prevention) Act 2005, which criminalises the persecution of women over allegations of witchcraft.
In Chhattisgarh’s neighbouring state, Jharkhand, officials say at least 414 people were murdered between 2001 and 2013 after being accused of being witches or sorcerers. Other India states have reported similar cases.
A family member’s illness, crop failure or a dry well are all common reasons for accusing a woman of witchcraft. These allegations might be made by relatives, neigbours, village leaders or local shamans, and childless, unmarried or widowed women are particularly vulnerable to them.
Once a rumour has spread, local men armed with sticks and axes will often hunt down the woman and lynch her.
It has even been known for people to employ a shaman to identify a witch responsible for the deaths of their cattle. The shaman, who supposedly uses white magic, will carve the names of local women of a certain age onto the branches of a Sal tree. The branch that droops is believed to bear the name of the witch.
Another method sees a shaman wrap up grains of rice in small bags, each with the name of a different woman written on it. The bags are then placed in a nest of white ants. The bag from which most rice is eaten is declared to be the one identifying the witch.
The death business
“Interestingly, only women are blamed for witchery,” says Sita Devi, who heads a small coalition of women who have been accused of witchcraft in Mandir Hasaud.
“This discrimination starts at birth. For example, when a baby boy is born the villagers celebrate by bursting three crackers. And when a girl is born only two crackers are fired,” she explains.
“There is a lot of caste consciousness and illiteracy in these villages and an ojha [a witch doctor or shaman] takes benefit of it by targeting these underprivileged women. Getting a woman killed has become a business for the fake god men and witch doctors.”
Male villagers are reluctant to talk to outsiders about it, but one tells me: “Women can turn into witches to avenge someone who has done them bad in the past.”
“I have seen a woman turning to a witch and flying faster than a car. Even a powerful man will shiver before such an ugly woman. The ojhas are our last resort as the educated people don’t listen to us.”
“They [the witches] eat human flesh and drink human blood. That’s what our elders have seen,” he explains.
In 1995, when ophthalmologist Dr Dinesh Mishra saw a woman beaten to death and her body dragged through the streets by an angry mob, he decided to fight this oppression.
The social activist explains: “Local belief … is that a woman can curse someone by making them sick or making them lose financially by destroying their crops. They are even held responsible for a natural calamity. This thinking creates hatred against the women and hence this crime.”
He believes that a lack of medical knowledge leads people to place their trust in the self-styled shamans who trick them in order to make money.
“The problem is widespread all over Chhattisgarh,” he says. “I am aware of more than 1,200 cases of witch hunting and I believe the numbers are just 10 percent [of the real total] as most of … the women are afraid to launch reports or complaints or they are sure that their voices will never be heard.”
“I also show magic tricks, which the witch doctors use to get the attention of the gullible villagers. I do all this to raise awareness and to tell villagers that witch doctors are tricking you. But their ancestral belief is so strong and any change in attitude will take time to happen.”
Here some women branded as witches share their stories:
Teerath Sahu – ‘The truth inside me keeps me alive. But I shiver whenever I see those men roaming the village’
Lachkera village, Chhattisgarh
Fifty-eight-year-old Teerath Sahu remembers clearly what happened to her and two other women from her village 14 years ago. She speaks timidly about it at first, but soon begins to open up.
“That day someone knocked on my door. When I came out to see what was happening, my world changed completely.”
She starts to cry as she recounts what happened next.
Teerath was asked to attend a gathering of villagers. Unbeknown to her, the villagers were consulting a witch doctor, who had identified her and two other women, Bisahin Bai and Shyama Bai, as witches.
“He had been drinking and smoking weed all along and the villagers believed his argument over our sobs and pleads,” she says. “Before we could understand what was going on or plead our cases, the villagers pounced on us.”
The three were beaten with bamboo sticks and iron rods, paraded naked around the village, tonsured and forced to drink urine. All of their jewellery was taken from them.
They were even forced to hold an electrical cable so that the villages could, they said, see “witches defying an electrical current and not getting electrocuted”.
The other women of the village were ordered to remain inside their homes while all of this took place.
The beatings continued until all three women fainted.
“In the evening, they finally left us to die outside a Goddess Durga temple,” Teerath remembers. “Our families mustered courage and brought us back to our homes. But, by then, we had lost everything, especially our honour.”
Their story became headline news and a case was lodged against 20 of those involved. But two have since died and others are out on bail.
“We still shiver when we see those men roaming the village,” she says.
Teerath says she and the other two victims never got justice, but their story did force the state to adopt an act banning witch hunts.
“The truth inside me is what keeps me living. And if the government and the world know the truth, why have the culprits been roaming free for the last 10 years or so?”
Bahura Bai – ‘I feel untouchable in my own family’
Sivani village, Chhattisgarh
It was August 2013, when 40-year-old Bahura Bai gently touched the head of a young girl in a local market.
“I never knew she would faint upon reaching home and that her family would blame me for casting dark spirits on the child,” she says.
The girl’s mother declared Bahura a witch.
“Whenever I took a bath in a village pond I felt dejected. All the women would leave the pond upon seeing me.”
But Bahura’s plight worsened when her brother-in-law fell sick. Family members blamed her, and she was attacked and choked.
“I feel untouchable in my own family and unworthy of living this outcaste life,” she explains. “No one eats anything from my hand. My sister-in-law always threatens to burn me alive. My nephew says he will cut me into pieces. I keep praying and asking my goddess ‘what is my crime?'”
Bahura says she never tried to lodge a formal complaint.
“I wanted to,” she says. “But the village head suggested that it’s a family and a village matter and should be resolved within the village.”
Gajra Bai – ‘I was mentally tortured and my image was tarnished’
Acholi Urla village, Chhattisgarh
Forty-seven-year-old Gajra Bai remembers the night she was woken by cries from a neighbour’s home. She went to see what was happening.
“I went to Virsa Bai’s home to find her daughter lying on a bed,” she recalls. “She had fallen sick and the medical help wasn’t available.”
The next day, villagers came to Gajra’s house and accused her of witchcraft.
“They abused me in front of neighbours and called me a witch and blamed me for performing witchcraft on the girl. I kept pleading my innocence but it fell on deaf ears; they were not ready to listen.”
Fortunately for Gajra, her family supported her. She decided to seek help from the police.
“I was mentally tortured and my image was getting tarnished so I had to take action,” she says. “Thank God my family was supportive.”
“In July 2010, police detained several villagers and charged them under the Witchcraft Prevention Act.”
But, as in so many of these cases, they were later released on bail.
Jaam Bai – ‘Here a woman has only to listen and not to act’
Sivani village, Chhattisgarh
Jaam Bai’s ordeal began 10 years ago, when the son of a neighbour fell sick.
“The five-year-old boy was introduced to an ojha [witch doctor] who suggested that a woman in the neighbourhood had cast evil magic on him,” she explains.
“Since I live next door, the family blamed me.”
The witch doctor couldn’t cure the boy so he was taken to a doctor, where it was established that he was in the last stages of jaundice. He died before his family could take him to the nearest city for treatment.
The news of his death spread through the village and Jaam went to offer her condolences to his family. But, she says, they “hurled abuse at me and branded me a witch who needed to be eliminated from the village”.
Sensing danger, she left her neighbour’s home.
When other villagers again assembled at the deceased boy’s home, Jaam believed it was an opportunity to try to repair relations. She went again to pay her respects.
“But the moment I stepped inside their house, they locked the door and started beating me up,” she says.
“They kept calling me a witch. They tore my clothes until my husband came and saved me.”
Afraid that they would kill her, Jaam wanted to seek police help. But her husband refused to let her, saying that it would “bring more shame to the family”.
So the threats and intimidation continued.
Then some rights activists working in the region heard her story and sought government action on Jaam’s behalf. The police detained the men who had beaten and threatened her.
“It was thanks to my friends,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been possible without them considering the conservative village I come from. Here a woman has only to listen and not to act on her own.”
Kuwariya Bai – ‘How can I forget what they did to me?’
Chota Bhavani Nagar, Chhattisgarh
Thirty-nine-year-old Kuwariya Bai’s nightmare began three years ago, when her neighbours heard her swearing about her son over a family matter.
“That was enough for them to label me a witch,” she says, stammering over the words.
“I knew what would happen if the word spread in my locality. So I kept quiet and didn’t let it affect me. But it kept haunting me,” she remembers.
Kuwariya’s fears came to fruition in April 2014, when she heard her neighbour hammering a nail into the wall between their two houses.
“They hammered the wall so hard that all the dishes in the kitchen fell down,” she says.
When Kuwariya objected, she says: “They [the men from the neighbouring house] suddenly came out with sticks and started beating me mercilessly.”
The marks from the beating still scar her face.
She says the villagers called her a witch and said “we will see who will save you today”.
The beating was so violent that she fainted and remained unconscious for hours.
Her husband filed a police complaint and all of those who attacked her were arrested.
“Some of them were released soon, but one among them is still behind bars,” she says, then adds: “How can I forget what they did to me and how they humiliated me by calling me a witch? But I have a big heart and I feel like forgiving them given the main culprit has died.”