Witch-Hunting in India

Witch Hunting in India: Most atrocious form of violence against women.

Author: Shubhangi Singh Rajora

In India, from antiquity, several evil practices have been followed, which include the dowry system, sati pratha etc. The belief system of our society has with the development of economic as well as education been able to eradicate many of such evil practices. Yet the practice of witch-hunting is still prevalent in many parts of our country owing to the superstitious beliefs of people. One of the cruelest forms of gender-based violence in India is the practice of Witch Hunting. This practice has to lead to inhumane torture and murder of alleged witches almost throughout the country.

Shanta is in her 40’s, she grew up believing in the existence of God. She prayed and regularly went to the temple. After her wedding, she relaxed her religious practices and beliefs but did not stop them entirely. She was ill-treated once at her husband’s home and was also taunted for her dark complexion. And soon, there were complaints about her religious beliefs, and was taunted for being a witch. There are several incidents where women face this kind of behavior, and they are subjected to torture, violence, and accused to be witches because of the deep-rooted beliefs ingrained in society.

What is Witch hunting?

An attempt to find and punish people whose opinions are unpopular and who are said to be a danger to society.[1]

This barbaric practice of Witch Hunting which women in many parts of india still suffers, occurs when the women alleged of causing damaging influences are often branded as Witches by ‘Ojhas’ popularly known as (tantriks/witch doctors) or by community people and then the women accused are rapped, bashed , flogged, banished, paraded naked through the village, forced to eat human excrement, balded etc. [2]

Why are women being accused?

Women are being accused of practising witchcraft for many reasons:

  • One reason might be that it gives people a sense of control and the ability to blame when there are unfortunate events where they have no power.
  • Women who hold their own land and are alone are at risk of randomly being accused.
  • Marital status, woman’s age, the death of a child, lousy weather, a disease outbreak, etc, are some reasons why women might be accused of practicing witchcraft. [3]
  • Laws pertaining to witch hunt
  • Before Independence, the British tried to ban this practice in the then states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhotanagpur in the 1840s-1850. But a few administrative steps took by the Britishers, resulted contrary to their intentions as there was a rise in witch hunt cases.
  • After Independence, there were no special laws pertaining to witch-hunting practices, the reason cited for this is that the Indian Penal Code provides for the punishment of such offenses committed in the process of witch-hunting.[4]
  • The Indian Penal Code provides punishment of up to One year in prison and/ or Fine up to Rs. 1,000 for “Voluntarily causing Hurt”.[5]
  • The Indian Penal Code criminalizes murder and provides a penalty of death or life imprisonment as well as a fine.[6]
  • Sec 354 imposes a penalty of up to Two years in prison for “Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any women intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty”.[7]
  • Sec 382 provides a Ten-year sentence for “Whoever commits theft, having made preparation for causing death, or hurt, or restrain in order to the committing of theft or in order to the retaining of property taken by such theft”.[8]
  • Othe penal provisions that are relevant to crimes committed against supposed witches relate to wrongful restraint and confinement[9], causing grievous hurt [10], Kidnapping and Abduction[11], Rape[12], Defamation[13]
  • Due to the increasing graph of crimes against women, some states came forward to formulate necessary laws against witch-hunting.
  • Bihar was the first state in India to pass a law against Witch-Hunting in the year 1999, and was named the “Prevention of Witch (Dayan) Practices Act”. A person who identifies a  woman as a witch can be imprisoned for 3 months and /or fined Rs. 1,000, and a person who causes a woman physical or mental torture by naming her a witch can be imprisoned for 6 months and /or fined Rs.2,000. The act also prohibits any harm to a woman in an attempt to “cure” her; the penalty for such an act is 1 year in prison and /or a fine of Rs. 2,000.[14]
  • After Bihar, Jharkhand also following the Bihar Model established the “Anti-Witchcraft Act” in the year 2001, to protect Women from inhuman treatment as well to provide victims legal recourse to abuse. In this Act, basically, Sec 3, 4, 5, and 6 talks about punishment granted if anyone accuses someone of being a witch, tries to cure the witch, and also any damages caused to them. Sec 7 of this Act talks about the procedure for trial.[15]
  • Chhattisgarh government enacted the “Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act, 2005”, to protect the people from atrocities in the name of Witch-Hunt. The said Act provides imprisonment for three years term for a person who accuses a woman of being a ‘Tonahi’ or ‘Dayan’ and five years’ imprisonment to anyone who causes physical harm to such woman.
  • Odisha government enacted the Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act, 2013 which became enforceable in February 2014. This Act among others empowers the government to organize various awareness programs against superstition and witch-hunting to make the law enforcement agencies as well as the society capable enough to put a pause over the rampant practice.
  • Rajasthan govt. enacted “The Rajasthan Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2015”. The Act provides for adequate measures to tackle the threat of witch-hunting and to also prevent the practice of witchcraft in the state. A person who commits witch-hunting (a grave crime) shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but may extend to five years or with fine which shall not be less than Rs. 50,000 or both.
  • The state of Assam, in fact, has got the Presidential affirmation to the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention, and Protection) Bill, 2015. The Act, 2015 classifies the practice as a non-bailable, non-cognizable, and non-compoundable offense while laying down up to seven-year imprisonment and a fine up to 5 lakh for identifying any person as a witch.

Why is it still prevalent and what can be done to curb it?

  • Many states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, etc; have introduced legislation that tries to address crimes that relate to witch-hunting and witchcraft but still, according to Police Report Data published by the Times Of India, witch hunting in Jharkhand has claimed 123 lives from May 2016 to May 2019, and 134 lives across the country, People were killed for the alleged use of “black magic” in 2016, according to National Crime Records Bureau. [16]
  • The reason lies behind the practice of witch-hunting, still taking the lives of innocent women and leaving women in the traumatized condition is that the current approach has been very fractionally,  where the laws talk only about the legal aspect of the problem. The legislations are inadequate in covering the entire range of crimes that are associated with witch-hunting.
  • Many rights groups have campaigned and are still campaigning to curb this evil practice but as it is a deep-rooted cultural practice, we need a holistic approach to educate people from the grassroots and make them aware of the current laws and the consequences of their actions.
  • Witch-hunting is such a peril that needs to be eliminated. A multi-dimensional and integrative approach must be followed. A very basic need is to create awareness among local people, secondly; that the victims of this practice must have access to medical intervention, and most importantly, as the victim’s mental health is most affected, so they must also have access to rehabilitation in their communities and support to process their trauma.

The way forward:

Witch-hunting is still a menace to women in our country, as they are tortured in the name of many myths and taboos which are ingrained in our society. Our country is developing due to advancements in technology and education but still many people are denied the right to live a decent life. The crimes like witch-hunting violate basic fundamental rights guaranteed in our Indian Constitution under Articles 14, 15, and 21. The State should establish Organization to deal with such cases and in a delicate manner as a matter of priority. Witch-hunting is an illogical crime that continues to take place today. It is high time that people are made aware of it and relevant steps are taken to curb it. 

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/witch-hunt

[2] https://blog.ipleaders.in/witch-hunting-attacks-in-india/

[3] https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=44f8a8cc132b4b76b8aedb8672580edf

[4] https://journal.rostrumlegal.com/witchcraft-in-india-an-alarming-reality/

[5] S-323, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[6] S-300 and S-302, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[7] S-354, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[8] S-382, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[9] S-339-348,Indian Penal Code,1860.

[10] S-320 and S-322, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[11] S-359-369, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[12] S-375-376, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[13] S-499-501, Indian Penal Code,1860.

[14] https://www.lawatoz.com/the-prevention-of-witch-daain-practices-act-1999/#:~:text=Witch%20(Daain%20)%20curing%E2%80%93%20any,(daain)%20in%20any%20manner.

[15] https://journal.rostrumlegal.com/witchcraft-in-india-an-alarming-reality/

[16] https://globalvoices.org/2019/08/06/witch-hunting-still-claims-lives-in-rural-india/

Image: https://thelogicalindian.com/story-feed/awareness/witch-hunting/