by- Europa Doley
The practice of witch hunting is not just a thing of the past, although the initial incidents of witch hunting traces back to the 17th and 18th century in Europe, where the Catholic Church encouraged such practice as a means of social control. Sadly, witch-hunting is still being practiced globally, especially in Africa but also in parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America. Women are accused of practicing witchcraft without any proof and are persecuted or even killed sometimes in organized witch hunts. Hence, it is important to shed light on this global problem that is affecting several people even today. August 10 has been declared as World Day against Witch Hunts by the Pontifical Mission Societies (known as missio in German) stating that the issue of witch hunting is rather a very serious problem as in at least 36 nations around the world, women continued to be persecuted as witches. If we look at it in the Indian context, witch hunting is still practised in rural parts of the country and several women are subjected to torture and violence as they are being accused to be witches, to sometimes avenge personal grudges or gain unique benefits.
In the contemporary world, misogyny still thrives but a little differently. Through social media witch hunts and media trials, the society often villainizes women from behind a screen and tortures them in the same way. For example, in the 2020 case of the media trial of Rhea Chakraborty, she was accused, witch hunted and trialled by the media for the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput because it’s easier to blame the woman involved in a man’s life for any incident.
Source – Youtube
On 18th June 2021, International Alliance to End Witch Hunts, an initiative by GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation ( Gurgaon, Haryana), organized a webinar on Witch Hunt Narratives. This was the third part of the series of Witch Hunt Narratives in which Mr. Samar Bosu Mullick, Director of Institute of Community Forest Governance, Ranchi, India moderated the whole event and Ms. Sarika Sinha, Director of ActionAid International was a discussant. There were two presentations by Dr. Helen Macdonald, who is a Professor at University of Cape Town, South Africa on Witchcraft Accusations from Central India and by Punam Toppo, who is the Director of ASHA NGO in Ranchi, India on WItch Killing: Crime with Social Content.
The webinar started with the organizer presenting a few videos showcasing the ground situation of the practice of Witch Hunting, in Ghana and Kenya. In many African countries, as studied by several researchers and activists, supernatural beliefs play a big role in some of the deep-seated prejudices against women accused of practising witchcraft.
The first presentation was by Professor Helen Macdonald on Witchcraft Accusations from Central India, which is a book written by her and she extensively studied whether the laws (both old and new changes) for ending Witch Hunts helped the situation in Central India, in any way. The whole book was based on her 20 years of ethnographic research of public accusations of “jadu-tona” (black magic or witchcraft) from Chattisgarh, Central India. She mentioned the difficulty of accessing information as it is largely unavailable in the Indian lower courts and she could only access the extreme cases of violence on the name of Witch Hunting, like murder of those accused as witches, from High Court appeals. Helen focussed on 34 judgements of which 27 are appeals from the appellate courts and also, 14 bail hearings. These appeals are from both pre- and post- Chhattisgarh’s Witchcraft Atrocities Prevention Act 2005, which allowed her to draw conclusions on the impact of the changes introduced in the new law. The Prevention of Witch Hunting Practices Act 2001, Jharkhand was the first law to be introduced in Central India but the Tonhi Pratadna Nivaran Adhiniyam or The Witchcraft Atrocities Prevention Act 2005, Chattisgarh brought in new and improved changes in the law. It closed down fast police discretionary practices and the police set cases before the courts utilising both the IPC and the 2005 Act to ensure greater conviction of the perpetuator. Introduction of the 2005 Act, showed significant short sentencing delays as have appeals to the High Court, for example prior to the 2005 law the average amount of time to final sentencing for appeal cases was 2 years and 5 months, while post to the law, the average time has reduced to 1 year and 7 months. Additionally, the average amount of time for providing sentencing to appeal judgement has seen an extremely significant reduction of 5 years and 4 months compared to what was stated in the previous law.
The state of Chhattisgarh has shown it’s determination to prosecute those who are guilty even if in any circumstances some cases gets dismissed, by appealing to the High Courts to have the decision reversed and request for thorough investigation of the case. Helen mentioned that these laws are seen as feminist victories and it is certainly commendable the way the state government through the help of gender equality activists are trying to bring change in the society. However, she argues that the laws are only partial and it’s an ongoing process, as in the Chhattisgarh law is doing it’s work but social ostracism stays and women are still confined to domestic spaces.
“What is sought in terms of imagined immediate justice through the Witchcraft Atrocities Prevention Act 2005, in fact, unfolds over time as a continually refined process of social and legal justice.”
The second presentation was by Punam Toppo, Director of ASHA NGO, Ranchi. She began by introducing the NGO and the work they have been doing to end the practice of witchcraft in Jharkhand. They fight for social and economic rehabilitation of victims and exorcists. The main aim of the NGO is to educate people on the evil practice of witch hunting and it’s harmful impact on the victims. They do this by making documentaries and writing articles on the practice of witchcraft, conduct street plays, wall writing, discussion with villagers, etc. Further, with the continuous efforts of ASHA in the year 1999 October, the Witch Customs Retribution Act was passed. Ms. Punam explained the tribal beliefs regarding witches that leads to isolation of those who are accused as witches and considered as an evil force. This further escalates the crime against those who are accused as witches and these are mostly women who are old, widowed, single or look different. She also spoke about the role of self acclaimed witch finders or ojhas who are considered to be the key people of society and people, majorly from the rural areas, approach them for any kind of problems. Once the ojha identifies someone as witches, the villagers take their decision very seriously and start harassing the victims. The tortures, which were also mentioned in the presentation, were very disturbing and extremely inhumane. This shows how women are framed as evil or witches without any substantial reason and it is nothing but the patriarchal ethos of the society maintaining the power hierarchy between men and women.
Ms.Sarika Sinha, Director of ActionAId International was the discussant of the event and she briefly discussed the summary of the webinar. She spoke on the practice of witch hunting to be a clear-cut ideological linkage between capitalism and patriarchy. She also discussed how in the indegenous societies, women with knowledge of traditional medicine are established as witches and raised the issue around stigmatisation of menstruation. Women’s indegenous knowledge and their reproductive and sexual rights intersect to the context of witchcraft superstition belief. People who challenge the heteronormative culture of the societies are also considered as witches. Ms. Sarika pointed out that trans women or trans dressers are often called witches since they seem “odd” to the society and men are looked upon as protectors from these “evil forces”. She concluded the event by saying that if people, specifically in the rural areas, had access to public health and critical learning, then the question of practice of witchcraft would not have been there.
Europa is an art enthusiast, an occasional reader and a musicophile. She’s doing her Master’s in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi and her interest revolves around the issues faced by marginalised communities. Currently, she is interning at kractivist.org