By Gaurav Sharma
The word witchcraft draws up vivid images of wicked women with a visibly protruding nose, scary claw-like fingernails, adorning a long, pointed hat which barely hides their wrinkled skin and bulging pimples. And all of them fly in the air on a magical broom!
Vivid but fictitious.
Notions of witchcraft being an insidious form of sorcery directed at the harm of an external individual are largely misplaced. In India, such misconceived perceptions have led to an epidemic of witch-hunt ‘expeditions’. Scores of women have been paraded naked, raped brutally, lacerated at their breasts, apart from being ostracised from society in such planned campaigns.
Gravity of Epidemic
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 2,047 crimes related to witch hunting were committed between 2000 and 2012. A vast majority of such crimes ensued in the states of Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam. Other cities such as Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat were also party to the witch-hunting saga.
Most of the women attacked were single or widowed. A vast majority of them held private land and were self-sustaining.
The prime motivation for such heinous crimes arises from basic factors such as illiteracy and deeply ingrained superstitions to more complex issues such as family land disputes, women property rights and sensitive gender relations.
Last year, Debjani Bora, an Indian athlete (javelin thrower) came under the trap of witch-hunting atrocity. She recounted with horror and grim sadness how she was tied and beaten up after being labeled a witch in connection with four deaths that took place in her village in the north-eastern state of Assam.
Going back further in the timeline, one finds countless cases where women have been victimized for such nefarious practices. Recently, a 63-year-old woman was beheaded by a group of villagers who suspected her of practicing witchcraft in Assam’s Sonitpur district.
The woman was beaten to a pulp and her head was later severed with a sharp weapon. Starkly resembling cases are common day occurrences in other remote parts of the country.
Concept and evolution of witchcraft
Contrary to popular notions, Witchcraft is known to have existed since the beginning of mankind, in both primitive and advanced cultures. According to scholars of witchcraft (wicca tradition), the earth-based religion predates the vast corpus of religions existing today by arguing that the belief system was present 40,000 years before the paleolithic age.
The subjective translation of the term witchcraft, literally meaning someone who practices the skill or craft of sorcery, connotates roughly equivalent terms in other European languages but do not translate into precisely the same meaning. (Hexerei (German), str gone ria (Italian) etcetera)
This gulf is further widened when translated into Asian and African languages (Daayan). Defining witchcraft becomes a Sisyphean task keeping in mind natural factors such as time and place and sociological factors such as culture, religion, and occultism.
Irrespective of the complexity involved in generalizing witchcraft, its present stereotypical perception as a mythical rendezvous between crones in the dead of the night, performing black magic and indulging in forbidden acts of cannibalism and licentious, orgiastic communion with the Devil are derivations from the Old Testament laws against witchcraft.
Following the church approval in the early modern period(14th Century-18th Century AD), witchcraft gained mass acceptance. Christianity posited a theosophical tug of war between good and evil, where practicing witchcraft was tantamount to worshipping the Devil. The proposition was used as a means to attribute deaths caused by natural and accidental causes such as plague, murder etcetera.
Adopting the hatching of such a conspiracy, massive witch-trials and witch-hunts were organized, largely in Protestant Europe.
With the rise in awareness of the so-called terror imposed by witchcraft, fanatical but popular leaders such as Bernardino of Siena arose and took the mantle of annihilating the ‘Devil worshippers’, those who had joined hands to engage in an apocalyptic battle with Christianity.
This false propaganda was further fueled with the publication of Malleus Maleficarum ( malevolent magic) by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The belief was further propagated by both Catholics and Protestants, although the book was later banned (not before being for used sumptuously for several years).
All this historicity culminates into a rather intriguing, and a more paradoxical question; that a ‘beguiling’ and ‘superstitious’ act such as witchcraft should coexist at a time when the Scientific revolution, reformation, and renaissance were remoulding the structure of people’s mind and their environment in leaps and bounds.
So what justifies this conundrum?
For one, there never existed an organized or unorganized witch-cult, ‘Witches’ were not healers or midwives that were part of a pagan religion. ‘Witches’ were not solely women of a particular age but included both sexes and ages. Witches did not exist, and so claims of them being a persecuted minority are fabricated theories. This is not to say that witch hunts did not exist, but that those killed in the extermination were thrust into a manipulated label or category called witches.
“Black masses and witch doctors were a figment of the imagination of the modern writers”, says the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Although the Indian term for witch called Daayana, is depicted in the ancient Hindu scriptures through the word Dakini–meaning a supernatural woman, the daayan cult emerged not until the 15th century in Maharashtra.
It is noteworthy that during the age of colonialism, India was subjected to intensive Christian missionary activity, during which a wide array of thoughts and beliefs were transmitted and ingrained into the minds of the local populace. The result being that generations till now scapegoat and kill ‘witches’ for their supposedly magical body parts.
Villagers are still disillusioned with modern science due to their inherent belief in diseases being caused by witchcraft. It is contended that treatment of chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and the Ebola virus has been severely hampered due to such ill rooted beliefs. Containment and treatment of other acute diseases such as tuberculosis, epilepsy, leprosy etc have also been immensely affected.
Rajputana( present day Rajasthan) and the Chota Nagpur region in Jharkhand were breeding grounds for witch-hunting during the 1840’s and 50’s. Fusing gender and colonial tensions together, mass huntings of witched began among the tribal Singhbhum and Santhal Parganas during the same time..
As the turn of the late 19th and early 20th century came, women classified as witches were ostracised from society. The practice came to a gradual halt between the 1930’s to the 1970’s, the time period during which the the Adivaasi movement scaled-up. It re-emerged in the 1980’s and has till now not shown any signs of abating.
Currently, three states have formed legislations to counter the menace of witch-hunting–Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Bihar. Maharashtra was the first state to introduce a law in recognition of the vicious treatment meted out to women by labeling them witches.
Other states such as Rajasthan and Karnataka are expected to follow suit. However, the lack of a national legislation is bound to remain a snag in the ironing out of the chinks in the legislative armour governing women rights. Lack of an anti-witchcraft act in toto makes the little progress that states have made negligible and hollow.
To add to the sorry state of affairs in protection of women from such social stigmas, the state law is rarely invoked without the concomitant application of the Indian Penal Code. This is to say that the state law on its own is a powerless structure.
Clearly, the law as it stands today lacks the desired efficacy and needs to be upended to make it nationally viable.
Transforming the attitude of the rural masses is also urgently required. Fomenting critical thinking and rationality is the need of the hour. However, bringing about such a fundamental change is easier said than done. In this regard, the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a training institute for making advocacy and lobbying has made much needed inroads into stemming the deeply entrenched belief systems of rural households through literacy programs. Its activities are indeed laudable though not enough.
Extricating misplaced notions calls for de-cluttering the mental garbage that has obscured the rationality of man. The only problem being magic has ruled the hearts of people for time immemorial and to win them over calls for a concrete, concerted effort. This requires political will which is visibly lacking in the country.