Debating India

Witch-hunts in Orissa

Saturday 21 May 2005, by DAS*Prafulla

in Sundargarh

The torture of three women in an Orissa district accusing them of being witches draws attention to the way superstitions rule the lives of tribal people in the State.

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Rani Birua and Jhala Bhengra,who were beaten up because a quack accused them of casting an evil eye on a child.

IT was 11-30 p.m. on April 21 and the residents of Uttam Basti, an unauthorised colony on the outskirts of Rourkela city in Orissa’s Sundargarh district, were about to retire for the day. A group of nearly 20 men had other ideas: they dragged three women - Munni Bandra, Jhala Bhengra and Rani Birua - all past 60, out of their homes and beat them up. Some of them also raped Munni.

Rani Birua witnessed Munni’s rape, while Jhala, whose eyesight is weak, heard her screams.

As the three women were tortured under cover of darkness, their families were beaten up and kept confined to their homes. When the attackers had had enough, they threw the women on the railway track near by and poured kerosene on them, threatening to set them on fire if they moved. They did not, in the end, carry out this threat, but Munni did not survive the beating and the rape. She died the next morning.

What had Munni and the other two women done to deserve this? Someone in the tribal hinterland of Sundargarh had pronounced them to be witches.

A neighbour of Munni, Jaipal Purthy, led the attack. A local quack, Birsa Munda, had led him to believe that the three women cast an evil eye on his daughter. Purthy had taken his nine-year-old daughter Shanti, who ran a high temperature and complained of stomach pain, to Munda. Unable to provide any cure, Munda blamed the three women.

Purthy then took his daughter to a nursing home in Rourkela town, but the girl did not recover. She breathed her last at the nursing home at around 10 p.m. on April 21. Purthy immediately returned to the colony to punish the women. While some of the attackers were local residents, others were called from the nearby settlements.

Munni’s small house is now locked. She was unmarried and had lived alone for nearly 30 years. Jhala and Rani are yet to come to terms with the horrifying experience. "Do we look like witches? We were tortured for no fault of ours. We know nothing about witchcraft,’’ Rani told Frontline.

The Gandomunda police have arrested four men, including Purthy. Eight other accused, including Munda, are absconding.

The Uttam Basti incident is not an isolated one. The tribal-dominated Sundargarh district has recorded at least 50 deaths due to suspicion of witchcraft since 2001. The local word for witch, Dahani, has powerful repercussions for the tribal population and almost invariably it is the women who are at the receiving end.

Quacks seem to be the best bet in any illness for the tribal people living in the remote hamlets. When diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea claim lives, they often blame a woman for it, accusing her of casting an evil spell. This makes villagers decide to get rid of the bad soul and the woman is punished, sometimes with death.

The problem is not confined to Sundargarh. Tribal people in many parts of Orissa link their problems to sorcery and witchcraft. Many tribal communities also believe that death is the work of evil spirits, black magic and witchcraft.

Mayurbhanj, another tribal-dominated district, has recorded 15 deaths related to belief in witchcraft since 2003. The problem also exists in Keonjhar and Phulbani districts.

The police only come to know of harassments that follow the branding of a woman as a witch when a suspected witch is killed. But there are hundreds of unreported incidents where "witches" are harassed, ostracised, banished from their villages, tonsured, physically tortured and even forced to eat human excreta. The assailants are usually relatives or neighbours of the suspected witch. There have been cases where the entire village or the panchayat ganged up against a suspected witch.

The reasons for the superstitious practice are not far to seek. The health care service in the interior districts is poor and in many areas, tribal people have to walk miles to the nearest health centre. The problem is accentuated by illiteracy, poverty and lack of awareness. There is no road to thousands of villages in the State and hundreds of schools do not have enough teachers.

Murders induced by belief in witches have left many families shattered. In Birwal village under Lathikata block of Sundargarh district, 14-year-old Sumati lives alone. Her mother, Budhuni Singh (50), was throttled to death by Samara Gauda, a 19-year-old from the village, on March 20. Samara believed that Budhuni practised witchcraft and was responsible for his brother’s insanity and his father’s death a few months ago. Samara is now in judicial custody. He was arrested by the Brahmani Tarang police the day after the murder when some people informed the police that they had seen him killing Budhuni.

The story of Noni Ekka (40) of Tainsar village of Lathikata block is equally pathetic. She was branded a witch in May last year. The villagers tonsured her head and made her eat cow-dung and cow bone. She was beaten up, paraded naked, asked to cross the Brahmani river and not return to the village.

Noni’s troubles started after she accidentally touched a girl in the neighbourhood, Sukhi Ekka, while looking for her son Manoj. It was around 11 p.m. and the girl was sleeping. Noni’s touch gave her a start and she fainted, presumably out of fright. But her parents blamed Noni’s "witchcraft" for it.

A case was registered on May 28 after Noni reported the incident to the court of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Rourkela. The13 people arrested for torturing her are now out on bail and the matter is pending before the court. Deserted by her husband, Noni leads a life full of uncertainty, struggling to feed her four children.

In another case, Bisaka Munda of Kurga village had high fever which gave her fits of shivering. The quack whom her family consulted pronounced her to be possessed by evil spirits. They kicked and punched the girl through the night to drive the evil spirits away. She died in the process, and seven members of her family have been charge-sheeted.

Though women are traditionally the victims of such witch-hunts, men too find themselves at the receiving end sometimes. In January 2003, Dhuleswar Barik of Alapaka village in Sundargarh district hacked to death six men because he suspected one of them of practising witchcraft. He was awarded the death sentence by the trial court last year. The matter is pending before the High Court.

There have been many cases where people, trying to propitiate the gods, have killed young boys and given their blood as offering. Quacks are sometimes killed when their cures fail.

"The problem is a combination of poverty, superstition, lack of medical care and illiteracy. It makes a deadly mix,’’ said Narendra Nayak, a Professor of Biochemistry in the Kasturba Medical College at Manipal in Karnataka and the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. "The solution to the problem lies in improving the levels of literacy, creating a scientific temper and improving the medical infrastructure,’’ said Nayak, who has been making visits to tribal pockets of the State to organise demonstrations of tricks that the tribal people believed could only be performed by those claiming to possess supernatural powers.

Witch-hunts have also been reported from the coastal districts of Orissa. Two years ago, in Krushna Prasad block of Puri district, a woman branded as a witch was tied upside down and four of her teeth were removed after the local panchayat decided to punish her. The incident drew the attention of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

"It is a serious problem when people take the law into their own hands and kill people in the name of witchcraft and sorcery. It is even more unfortunate that belief in witchcraft continues to prevail in the coastal region of Orissa despite the spread of education," said A.B. Tripathy, NHRC Rapporteur for Orissa and Jharkhand who investigated the Puri incident. "The government should undertake a Statewide study and find out the dimensions of the problem. Necessary action should be taken by the authorities and the civil society should be organised to fight superstition," Tripathy said. "The women’s self-help groups (SHGs) should be activated through various government agencies and banks to motivate people."

Nayak said that belief in witchcraft is not unique to Orissa. "The problem is very strong in the tribal heartlands of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh," he said. "Even in a city like New Delhi people have superstitions, but they usually don’t go to the extent of killing people."

According to Nayak, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, a body of 65 rationalist organisations from different parts of the country, has been demanding a law to ensure the separation of religion from politics, administration and education. The new law should ban state-sponsored religious activities, he said.

"The country will never progress unless superstitions are removed. We cannot afford to have quacks making a fool of everybody, including Central Ministers," Nayak said.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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