As I write this, I recollect (I’m sure you would too) those days in the childhood when folklores about witches and sorcery used to be a subject of both, my curiosity and fright. Gone were those days, as there were better things to focus upon, until recently, when I stumbled upon the prevalent inhuman practice of ‘witch’ hunting in India. Woven with major legal issues and infringement of human rights, this practice is something that needs adequate attention on a forum like this. Here are a few things that, you, as an aware citizen should know about it.
- What is this Whole Uproar About?
Witch hunting refers to stigmatization of people belonging to specific groups, mostly women, by labeling them as ‘witches’ or evil spirits who bring bad omen to the society. Prevalent largely in rural and tribal areas, where blind faith guides the way of life, people after proclaiming the victims as ‘witches’ or ‘daayan’, subject them to inhuman atrocities ranging from mob lynching, gang rape, naked parades, blackening of face, shaving of head, beheading and coercing to consume human excreta, to burning alive. This blood-curdling violation of human rights is neither a dead nor a redundant practice of the past. Instead, it is very much persistent, accepted and tolerated in society and what is more bizarre is that the number of instances of witch-hunting in India is on the rise.
- Who is victimized by it?
It is generally women in rural and tribal areas who are persecuted by this cold-blooded practice. Studies have shown that it is single or widowed women, or old couples who are commonly targeted, since they are the most vulnerable (both, economically and socially) groups. Sadly, witch-hunting is also a caste-based practice wherein upper caste members take pride in stigmatizing women of lower or Dalit classes to maintain their ‘superiority’. Another set of women who are alleged to be ‘daayans’ are the ones who dare to protest and speak up against the social hegemonic structures. When they turn rebellious, they are silenced by this gender-based violence, indicating that ‘women’ must stay within their ‘lakshman rekha’ (limits).
- Where is it prevalent?
In all the parts of India! However, it is generally reported to be on a higher risk in the Eastern and Central States like Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. This practice is mostly rampant in the rural and tribal areas of the country, wherein there is utter need of economic development, infrastructure and resources like education, sanitation and healthcare.
- What are the reasons behind it?
The most common (and easiest to give) reason is that of ignorance and underdevelopment of scientific temper in these regions which easily fuel superstitions, wherein ruralfolk throw the burden of their miseries- be it bad crop, ill health, natural disasters, unnatural deaths and the like, upon the ‘evil spirits’. Moreover, witch-hunting has become a customary practice, glorified by the upper castes ‘witch doctors’. Other reasons include backwardness and herd mentality. However, the root of this practice goes way deeper than this.
The real driving force behind this practice is the lust for property. The dominant and powerful in such areas eye on the property (if any) owned by the weakest and most vulnerable persons in their community. Upon categorizing them as ‘daayan’, and causing their ostracism from the village or compelling them to leave their residence, it becomes easier for them to forcibly acquire and hawk on the relinquished property.
Secondly, the victimization is reinforcement of power-play in the society. The rich, resourceful and upper caste men ‘culturally imperialize’ the ones they consider not ‘equal’ to them. This tagging generates culture of subservience amongst the latter and enables the former to continue their supremacy in the community.
Sometimes, this practice is also adopted to show the woman her supposed ‘place’. It could be any woman- the one who dares to speak against the patriarchy, or who is outdoing others (read ‘men’) in the community, or is self-sustaining, or someone who refuses to return sexual favours to the socially dominant.
- What is the status of law?
Despite multiple instances of this brutal practice witnessed over the years, hardly any concrete steps have been taken to bring the perpetrators behind bars. In absence of a special legislation, the only alternative for the victim is the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC). The various sections invoked generally in such cases are 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 323 (hurt), 376 (rape) and 354 (outraging a woman’s modesty) among others. The lacunae, however, witnessed upon invoking these provisions are: firstly, the victims in such cases have little or no access to law or police, mainly because of their social, geographical and educational background, which makes it difficult for them to attain justice. Secondly, since this crime is socially manifested, out of either fear or acceptance of the practice, people prefer remaining silent, which makes collection of evidence for investigation difficult. Thirdly, the punishment granted mostly is for ‘hurt’, which merely extends upto 1 year, with a fine of Rs. 1000. Now, how is that supposed to set a deterrent?
Though Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have their respective special legislations to address this problem, they come across as toothless pieces of law in practice for various reasons like prescribing lesser punishment for offences in comparison to the IPC (thereby creating conflict between the two), or putting the burden of proof upon the victim than upon the accused.
What the law fails in doing is to take a proactive stance. One thing which is clear is that witch-hunting is an out and out violation of human rights enshrined in several international conventions and the Indian Constitution, like Right to Equality, Right to Life, Right to Protection against All Forms of Gender Discrimination, Right to Security, Right to Subsistence, Right to Adequate Housing, Right to Access Law and National Tribunals and the like. Law has grossly failed in sensitizing people against this practice. Neither the mechanisms for adequate identification of the problem, nor for the rehabilitation of the victims is in place. To add to this, are the evidentiary and procedural glitches in the criminal justice system as well as lack of adequate legal awareness of one’s rights in the areas where such practice has laid its clutches on.
- What should be done?
As mentioned earlier, legal system has to take positive steps. Rather than waiting for the victim to crave justice, it should ensure that the problem is addressed with the seriousness it deserves, than just being relegated as any other offence in the IPC. There is an urgent need for a special legislation with expansive definition of the term ‘witch’, with stricter punishments, and which lays the burden of proof upon the accused. It must also provide for a minimum mandatory punishment, so that the judiciary gets lesser scope to reduce the sentence owing out of mitigating factors. There should be provisions for rehabilitation of the victims, which could lessen down their vulnerability and trauma, post the incident. And, since it is an offence against the State (being a criminal offence), the State should initiate investigation on its own, rather than reacting after the king and pawns have gone back into the same box!
Moreover, no law can be efficient until the masses, upon whom it shall be binding, are aware of it. Hence upon enactment, the State must ensure that people know that such a law is in place, that the victims can fearlessly seek protection under it, and that it can effortlessly bring the culprits behind bars. The areas where witch-hunting is most prevalent must be extensively sensitized in respect of the plight of the victims. Similarly, the vulnerable groups must be educated about their legal rights and the protections that they are entitled to, under the law. Naturally, things are not going to change overnight, but who said change would not be evident at all?
Witch-hunting, as a practice, is a serious threat to a nation which aspires to become one of the biggest super-powers in the world. All our tall claims of development and growth shamelessly go for a toss, when such incidents are heard of, in the scientifically progressive 21st century. Clearly, it is a remediable threat, which needs an effectual solution from the legal system, complemented by a strong social backing. It is time we make sure that stories about witchcraft and wizardry merely remain childhood fictions, and not gross realities of life.
“International Law Memorandum: Jharkhand’s Obligation to Prevent Witch Hunting”, http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/academics/clinicalprogram/int-human-rights/upload/international-law-brief-witch-hunt.pdf, as accessed on May 15, 2011.
 Jharkhand has enacted The Anti-Witchcraft Act, 2001; Bihar has enacted the Prevention of Witch (Daayan) Practices Act, 1999; and Chhattisgarh has enacted the Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act, 2005.
II Yr., B.A.LL.B. (Hons)
NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad
[Submitted as an entry for the MightyLaws.in. Blog Post Writing Competition, 2011]