For many of us, witches are something from storybooks and films. But in Central and Eastern India, witches are an extremely serious matter.
From Jharkhand state, Kalpana Pradhan explores the practice of witch hunting, and the efforts to end it.
Budhni Tudu is surrounded by relatives, who are trying to feed her. The 34 year old looks tired and afraid, sheltering here in her sister’s house.
Six months ago, fellow villagers in Birbasha, Eastern India, declared Budhni a witch. Since then, her life has been destroyed.
When her neighbour’s daughter became ill, Budhni was blamed.
“My brother-in-law called a village meeting and the villagers declared that I was a witch,” she told me in tears. “They say I am a witch and tell me that I am a human eater. They dragged me down and abused me, hit me.”
Villagers tortured and threatened to kill her.
“Now I am isolated from society. They don’t allow me to leave my home,” she stammered. “I am counting each and every moment in fear. I am afraid to even go out and fetch drinking water because if they find me they will kill me. Recently, my daughter married, but now I am worried about the future of my daughter and grandchildren.”
According to India’s National Crime Record Bureau, two thousand two hundred and ninety people, mostly women, were killed in witch-hunts between 2001 and 2014.
Witch-hunts date back hundreds of years.
A long sickness, dying cattle, or a string of unsuccessful crops can quickly spark rumors that a witch is present in the village.
If a witch doctor, or Ojha, brands a woman a witch, she is subjected to violent treatment: brutal beatings, burns, she might be paraded naked through the village, forced to eat human excrement, raped, or even killed.
Witch-hunts are most prevalent in states with low literacy and poor education.
They’re common in Central and Eastern India, especially in the State of Jharkhand, where more than 50% of women in rural areas cannot read or write.
In an attempt to counter the problem, members of The Science and Rationalist Association are spread across rural India. They aim to encourage critical thinking, explained secretary Arindam Bhattayacharya
“We explain, citing various instances, that there isn’t anything called [a] witch, called [a] miracle, called supernatural or occult powers as they believe, and every occurrence, every happening has a cause and effect relationship,” Bhattayacharya said.
“So we make sincere efforts to convince them that what the so-called witch doctors show in pointing out a witch [is] nothing but some heavy magic tricks. To make things more convincing we perform those tricks in front of the villagers who [are] present there and explain how it is done.”
Arindam says the campaign is having an impact.
But witch-hunts aren’t just about superstition. When a woman is branded a witch, relatives and other villagers can seize her land.
So family disputes over property, land ownership and village politics are often the real reasons behind witch-hunts.
In 1995, Chhuteney Mahato, then 32 years old, became the target of an attack in her home in Kharswan district, Jharkhandstate.
“My neighbors branded me a witch. One night they set my house on fire, looted my home, and seized my property,” Mahato recalled. “I was thrown out of home along with my four children. I went to lodge a complaint in the local police station but they refused me. I faced a terrible situation.”
Jharkhand is one of the only states in India that has a law against witch-hunts.
But according to Kavi Kumar, a local journalist that has been covering the issue for 30 years, the law has done little to protect women.
“The state has an anti-witchcraft law, but most police refuse to register witch hunt cases because there is political pressure from a village head or village administration. So women are not getting enough support from this law,” Kumar explained.
But using her father’s connections to seek help from police at higher levels, Chhuteney was one of the lucky few that managed to survive.
Recovering from the trauma, she resolved to help others like her. “I don’t want any woman to face what I faced and go through the trauma that I experienced,” she said.
She now travels to villages and goes from house to house, persuading people to stop the witch-hunts, and she says she has rescued 35 women from witch hunts.
Until the violent practice is brought to an end, Chhuteney is determined to push for the rights of women like her.
“I have been fighting for their rights for a long time now, giving them emotional support, and taking them to the local police station,” she told me. “And if police don’t respond then I ask help from higher authority for judicial support, for judicial help. I will continue to do this until my death.”