Witch Hunting in Sonbhadra: Reality and Intervention
It is impossible for Jagesari Devi (32), a tribal woman of Sonebhadra district, to forget the fateful day when she became a victim of witch hunting and her tongue was chopped off. She was branded a 'dayan' (witch) by a local 'ojha' (sorcerer). Though her wounds have healed, the scars remain forever. The unforgettable nightmare has rendered the Holi festival colourless for her.
"Am I really a dayan," wonders Jagesari, and following this inhuman act of others, today she can neither speak properly nor can eat or drink with ease.
Witch hunting is still prevalent and brutally practiced in the twenty-first century in the rural part of India. Almost every other day, a woman is branded a witch or victimised for witch-hunting in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh, where Government and NGOs deliberately keep mum on that issue. PVCHR came to know through local dailies and activists that witch hunting are committed in the remotest corner of the State as it is practiced in Mayourpur block of Dudhi tehsil in Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh.
To probe into the fact that women branded ‘witch’, then a squad of the psycho therapist reached Mayourpur and provided the psychological support through testimonial therapy to the victimized women. They badly need to regain their dignity and honour through a form of social recognition in which their private truth is openly recognised and becomes public truth, and their suffering is acknowledged and becomes part of social memory. A general silence often surrounds political repression, as if it only exists in the minds of the survivor, but the narratives of the survivors will preserve history.
Mayourpur, a place which is quite economically backward, where people have almost no access to the basic necessities of life be it education and health care. In this kind of situation, people tend to be steeped into obscurantism and superstition. And anything bad that might befall these villagers like bad crop, diseases, sudden and unexplained death of someone in the family, or drying of well tend to be considered the work of some evil ‘witch’. Thus begins a witch hunt to locate the person responsible. When daughter of Jagesari’s brother-in-law Sahdev died due to illness on August 1, 2010, she went to Sahdev’s house to condole the death, she saw that an ojha present there. He started branding Jagesari as a dayan (witch) and made her responsible for the death. The villagers gathered for the burial stood as mute spectators and her tongue was slashed as punishment.
Manbasia (45) is another woman who has been subjected to inhuman ordeal in Ghaghari Tola Sahgora village, under Babhani police station, in Myorpur block of Sonebhadra district. After the demise of a boy in the village, she was not only attacked with sharp weapons but also paraded naked in public on July 17, 2010. "I was not a dayan, then why was I paraded naked?" she questioned. Her husband Jodhilal said he had to mortgage his land for his wife's treatment.
The frequency of such assaults and the dismal conviction rate, despite the existence of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, has terrified victims into a silent acceptance of the cruelty. Some of the most common concerns in relation to witch hunting are that in very few cases have the authorities actually responded to the complaints, and witch hunting is severely under reported, poorly investigated and prosecuted with negligible rates of conviction. The police often do not register FIRs.
The easiest way to grab a woman’s property in rural hinterland is to brand her a witch. Unbelievable but horrifically true in 21st century India, women in the interiors of states are beaten, paraded naked, disgraced, ostracised and then robbed of their land by anti-social elements and sometimes even greedy relatives. Witch hunting is a tool to oppress the critical thinking and wider participation of women in decision making process in the patriarchal society. In our Bhojpuri language they are called as Kan – Dayan (initial form of witch hunting).
However, the conviction rate for witch hunting crimes is dismal. The perpetrators, in most cases, are male relatives and their motive is to usurp the property of single women. The modus operandi is to disgrace and ostracise the victim. "
The fact is that it is not superstition that is at the root of many of these accusations of witchcraft but socio-economic factors: land-grabbing, property disputes, personal rivalry and resistance to sexual advances. In many cases, a woman who inherits land from her deceased husband is asked to disown the land by her husband's family or other men. If she resists, they approach the Ojhas and bribe them to brand her a witch. This strategy of branding a woman a witch is also used against women who spurn the sexual advances of the powerful men in the community.
PVCHR organized honoured these women on 10th March, 2011 on the death anniversary of Savitri Bai Phule[iii] known as Bharti Mahila Mukti Diwas. The honour ceremony was organized in the Varanasi city and it was riskier in the village. The objective of the ceremony was to get them to resettle back into village.
PVCHR immediately intervened and sent the testimonies to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi and Director General of Police (DGP) Lucknow to draw its attention towards this social evil and get victims of witch hunting some justice, Mr. Deepak Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Sonbhadra in a vide letter no. एस /शि - 26 ए/11 dated 9th May 2011 directed to be vigilant in preparing a list of actors, who brand women as witch, especially the Ojha, Sokha and the others involved in this type of activity. It requested to hold regular meetings with an effort to create awareness against the practice of witch hunting.
On 25th September, 2011 PVCHR wrote open letter to Prime Minster of India[iv] and demand for a national legislation and special empowerment programme for the women in the witch hunting- prone area and awareness campaign to promote education and health.