101 East

A curse in the family: Behind India’s witch hunts

Can survivors of witch hunts in India change traditional beliefs to stop the brutal practice?

In remote parts of India, illness, a poor harvest or just plain bad luck can sometimes mean only one thing: a curse in the family.

Villagers will often consult an ohja, or witch doctor, who they believe has the power to undo evil spells and identify those who supposedly placed the curse.

Sixteen years ago, Chhutney Mohato was stripped naked, beaten and nearly killed after she was accused of being a witch in her village in eastern Jharkhand State. She was forced to leave her home and abandon all that she owned.

Today, Mohato runs a small organisation in eastern India that helps women who have been lucky enough to survive a similar fate. Most of those accused of witchcraft, however, are less fortunate – they are commonly killed by mobs of villagers.

Land disputes and abuses of power are often at the root of such accusations – with women and their families falling prey to false accusations and being driven off their land.

In this film, we meet women who describe how their lives were turned upside down when they were accused of being a witch and meet some of those levelling the accusations against their neighbours.

As India modernises and gender roles change, some of these persecuted women are fighting back. But can they change traditional beliefs or will they succumb to the collective ignorance and abuse of power around them?

The false consciousness and causes of witch hunts

Soma Chaudhuri, an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology and School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in the US, is an expert on this topic and explains: “The trigger could be a death [or] a series of bad luck, but we have also seen that witch hunts are also triggered by motivated and vested interest.”

“These are communities and areas [where] there is much impoverishment going on, so there is a constant sort of stress. And it doesn’t take long for the community to start gossiping and then also coming together and getting support against the ‘witch’. And the witch hunt then becomes sort of a representation for stress relief. You go, you eradicate the woman or you beat her, or you make her confess – and the stress is relieved a little bit.”

In the following account, she explores some of the causes of witch hunts and examines the shortcomings of the Indian government in addressing them.

In India, witchcraft accusations are more common among the adivasi (tribal) populations, although there are sporadic reports of similar incidents among other communities.

But while newspaper stories about witch hunts among the adivasis are commonplace, prosecutions of the accusers are not.

This apparent neglect reflects the patronising and dismissive attitude of the Indian government towards adivasi issues and problems, which in turn can be traced to the colonial hegemonic stratification of castes and tribes – whereby adivasis were considered somehow more ‘wild’ than other natives of the country.

When India gained its independence in 1947, the British rulers were replaced by a democratic republic, the higher castes came to represent the country’s most ‘civilised’ and, according to the newly formed constitution, the adivasis were given a special status as Scheduled Tribes (ST).

On paper, that special status guarantees them certain privileges in education, income security and social benefits but in reality, the adivasis are still treated as wild, uncivilised and uncontrollable by government institutions. Thus, when conducted among the ‘wild’ and ‘incorrigible’, witch hunts are not viewed as such an aberration.

The subsequent lack of governmental interference has resulted in a marked lack of anti-witch hunt laws and no central law on the matter. To date, only three Indian states have passed laws targeting witch hunts: Bihar in 1999, Jharkhand in 2001 and Chhattisgarh in 2005.

What is behind these witch hunts in the first place?

Some of the more popular explanations are property disputes, epidemics and local politics that erupt into gendered conflicts against local adivasi women.

For example, in Malda, West Bengal, adivasi widows are persecuted as ‘daini’ by their husband’s kin. The accused women are mostly childless widows whose land will pass on to their nearest male relative after their death. By accusing them of practicing witchcraft, those relatives can inherit the land immediately.

Similarly among the adivasis of Jharkhand, land is inherited through the male lineage, while women have some limited rights over land. These limited rights become crucial during witch hunts as the land that belongs to the woman could be transferred to her husband’s relatives if they are able to discredit her claim.

And the importance of adivasi land has increased in recent years as these areas have been found to be rich in minerals and forest produce, resulting in the unlawful encroachment by both the government and corporations and thereby making land a scarce and highly valuable resource within these communities.

But land is not at the root of all accusations.

Thus while one should not underestimate the misogyny that these hunts reveal, government bodies and international financial institutions are equally responsible for witchcraft accusations in contemporary India.

by Soma Chaudhuri, Department of Sociology and School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in the US

The adivasi belts of India have some of the worst health facilities in the country and this teamed with illiteracy, marginalisation and government corruption results in a reliance upon ojhas (traditional healers) when diseases such as malaria or cholera strike.

The ojhas serve as both medicine man and mediator, dealing with the daily troubles of the people. What is more, they are viewed as religious leaders, whose closeness to God and special skills and knowledge allows them to play an active role in saving their communities from epidemics.

These important religious, political and social figures legitimise witch hunts by confirming the supposed involvement of witchcraft in any ill fortune, while village level politics serve to further support and encourage villagers in their hunt for witches.

And it is not only women who are targeted – anyone, male or female, old or young, married or widowed could find themselves on the receiving end of these accusations. It is, therefore, important to seek to understand these witch hunts within the context of the contemporary changes facing these communities.

For instance, Silvia Federici argues that to understand contemporary witch hunts in India one has to understand how the social crisis caused by economic liberalism has transformed, uprooted and plundered communities – forcing people to compete for limited resources.

Thus while one should not underestimate the misogyny that these hunts reveal, government bodies and international financial institutions are equally responsible for witchcraft accusations in contemporary India.

Witch hunts then become a part of the eternal class struggle, where the hunts become a coping strategy through which the adivasis seek to make sense of the disruption in their social, political and economic life. We see this among the adivasi tea plantation workers in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, who are in a constant class struggle with the owners and planters.

For this group, whose livelihoods have for generations been tied to the oppressive structure of the plantations, protests against their management would result in the loss of their jobs and their only source of income. It is, therefore, easier to attribute their misery and misfortune to witchcraft rather than the exploitative nature of their labour.

And, by failing to address accusations of witchcraft as a serious problem facing contemporary India, the country’s government is allowing supposed witches to be used as a false consciousness for the adivasis.

Soma Chaudhuri is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology and School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in the US.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.