The politics of ‘witch killing’ in India
The national dailies on April 25 carried an incredibly brutal news report. A 60-year-old tribal man and his elder sister were clubbed to death on Monday in Bengal’s East Burdwan district allegedly by their nephew, Bishu Mandi, and some local villagers. Mandi allegedly told the villagers that a witch doctor had told him that his uncle Mangal Mandi, 60, and his sister Maku Baskey, 65, were witches and responsible for his wife’s prolonged illness.
The incident took place at Neor village in the Arui area in East Burdwan district, about 130 km away from Kolkata. The village comes under the jurisdiction of Madhadihi police station. After police and local administration came to know of incident on Tuesday, Bishu Mandi and his associates burnt the bodies on the banks of the Damodar river. They even stopped a police team from entering the village by shooting arrows.
This incident underscores two different aspects of witch-killing. One is that the victims were adivasis and the killers were also adivasis. The second is that a man is a victim along with a woman that is an anomaly in our common knowledge about witch-killing. Where does this place the entire world of witch-hunting and witch-killing in India which is almost always associated with women, often Dalits, widows, lonely women and women who own plots of land? So men are rarely accused of witchcraft, often used as a politically diabolical measure to get rid of women who are considered ‘superfluous’ within the society that they inhabit.
In May 2016, a 45-year-old woman was lynched in West Bengal’s West Medinapore district after villagers accused her of witchcraft, following which seven people were arrested .Holding her responsible for a woman’s death around a month back, residents of Debra village dragged Sambari Tudu out of her house on Monday night, tonsured her head and beat her to death. In the same month, a day before this news appeared, , a court in Ghatal in the district awarded the death penalty to seven people, including a woman, and life imprisonment to six others for the lynching of Phulmani Singh (70), her daughter Sambari (40) and daughter-in-law also named Sambari (40) after they were branded as witches.
The practice of witchcraft and visiting witch doctors goes back a few centuries in the tribal belts scattered across Bengal’s western districts and parts of Jharkhand. There have been numerous summary killings and punishments by kangaroo courts. However, in recent years, many of these killings have resulted out of disputes over property. In the incident described above, the locals explained that Rekha Mandi, wife of Bishu Mandi, was unwell for some time. On Monday, Bishu claimed to have taken his wife to a witch doctor known as janguru in the Jamalpur area in the same district. Some villagers accompanied them.
But there is always a different story hidden behind the targeting of women – and sometimes men – as witches and then putting them to a brutal death. Sociologists suggest that the old practice is being resorted to in a big way to grab land which has gained in value with development work in the countryside. Money plays an important role in the entire operation because none of the victims are more impoverished than the others in the village. The get a woman to be branded a witch needs the services of a witch-doctor called the janguru in Bengal. His touts scout around for probable candidates in tribal pockets. Those who want to eliminate a candidate with land to be confiscated, approach the janguru through these touts. The janguru agrees to do the needful in exchange for fees depending directly on the kind of benefit the ‘witch-hunting’ will bring to the his client.
In other words, the janguru is an agent who is used to point out any random person or persons as fictitious targets who are practicing witches. The ‘randomness’ however, mostly has a hidden agenda such as long-standing personal enmity, dispute within the family over tracts of land or property, old age of a widow who refuses to die, any woman suspected of casting a ‘curse’, an ‘evil eye’ on someone to hurt / injure / kill / maim and so on. The ‘target’ is not given any opportunity to defend herself or even ask why she is being targeted. Often, the attack on the target is entirely sudden where the target has no inkling of what is going to happen to her and more importantly, why.
In West Bengal, the menace is becoming stronger in districts like Malda, Midnapore and Bankura where some tribal women are forced to live under police protection. In most cases, state intervention is necessitated by raids on their homes during which other family members are killed. There is a carefully planned programme of creating suspicion about the women among people in the village pointing out to some common and peculiar happening which is read as a ‘sign’ of witchcraft by the witch-doctor. He performs his entire role and function without a hitch because in tribal and illiterate societies, everything evil and negative is almost automatically linked to a woman. Thus, one victim being a man in the current case raised questions about the gender specificity of the crime.
When a village has been sufficiently aroused in anger and revenge against the woman concerned, the janguru pronounces the death sentence. Resistance is either nil or very negligible because the victim is ignorant, illiterate, poor and has almost no protection from the law. Local authorities too, seem hardly bothered to tackle the issue and thus save the poor women from their bitter fate. Political forces within and around the village dare not try to interfere for fear of being accused of tampering with tribal culture and of trying to corrupt it from outside. The problem of witch-hunting therefore, not only goes on, but seems to be gathering strength in the face of no opposition or resistance to the evil practise of killing women.
In Women, Land Rights and Forests, Gobind Kelkar and Dev Nathan reveal a detailed study of changes sweeping across Adivasi communities in Eastern India with special reference to the adivasi communities of Jharkhand. Jharkhand spreads right acorss Bemgal, Bihar and Odisha and some portions of Madhya Pradesh. The study traces the shift in the economy from hunting-gathering to agriculture which brought a corresponding change in the status of women from one of dominance and power to one of subordination and weakness.
Originally say Kelkar and Nathan, unmarried daughters, wives and widows enjoyed two kinds of land rights. One was a life-interest in the land which covered the right to manage land and its produce. The other was the right to share the produce of the land which included a maintenance right. In other words, this implied that the woman had the right to a share necessary for her own maintenance and upkeep.
The unmarried daughter enjoyed the additional right to share produce greater than her maintenance needs. This included amount needed to buy ornaments, utensils or even to sell it and lend out the money if she so wished. This became too much for the men to bear after they discovered that land was also a source of accumulation of individual property when economic lifestyle underwent changes. But they spared the rights of the unmarried daughter and the wife whose husband was alive. They directed their attack at the rights of the widow when she would stand to inherit her husband’s land upon his death.
Men did not care for land rights enjoyed by widows. They had never questioned these rights earlier because since hunting-gathering was the only means of living, there was hardly any land to be inherited or owned. The widow enjoyed land rights that asserted her position within the family both in economic and social terms. When her husband died, the woman inherited the right to become the substitute father. She became head of household even if she had major sons. If the sons were minors at the time of their father’s death, the widow inherited both the land as well as the immovable property. She managed the household and supervised land cultivation.
When the son/s grew up, the property could be partitioned off between/among them if they so wished. But even when this happened, the widow could not be excluded from her rightful share. ‘Rightful share’ did not just imply maintenance share but ‘a real life interest in the land’ which included the right to mortgage the land. There were two conditions under which these rights could be enjoyed: one, she should be a continuous resident in the village and two, she should not have remarried.
The men did not like this. Their argument was that such land rights vested in widows would shake those adivasi structures where patriliny saw that ancestry passed down from a common male ancestor who determined the lineage. They therefore set about demolishing these rights one by one. First, they restricted the right of the widow to mortgage the land. Then, they decided that the widow would retain the right to that small piece of land that would ensure her survival needs or maintenance only. Finally, these rights were systematically broken down. Today, the tribal widow in adivasi pockets of West Bengal is no better in terms of land-rights than any average widow under the Hindu law. She no longer retains individual access to land. Her survival now depends on whether her husband’s male heirs support her or not.
But there were a few pockets where it was extremely difficult to implement this three-phased strategy because of strong resistance from women and from women’s organisations. In these pockets, killing off the widows by labelling them ‘witches’ provided an easy solution. The study, which is purely a sociological one, the legal aspects of these ‘witch’-murders have been left untouched. Nathan and Kelkar conclude that witch-hunting is based on economics, closely related to the destruction of woman’s traditional land rights in adivasi communities covering the Jharkhand regions. Over the past 30 years of witch-killing, 42 out of 46 witches killed were women and most of them were widows with land of their own.
Witch-hunting is also a political weapon in areas where men with political ambitons arranged the murders of women they had had liasons with and also had these murders labelled ‘witch-killing’ in order to root out the possibility of a sex scandal in the face of a forthcoming election. Such killings included the killing of pregnant women and young widows because they were more vulnerable to such liasons. Sometimes, they were even pressurised into such liasons with political bigwigs. The labelling of women as witches therefore, according to these researchers is an essential part of the process of establishing authority of men in a culture where authority was originally shared between men and women.
The adivasis, blinded by superstition and superstitious beliefs go by an ancient mythical tale. The story goes that in ancient times, when tribal men were annoyed by talkative, questioning and disobedient women (the adjectives strictly defined by the men themselves), they prayed to the Forest God to teach them how to control these women. When the women got wise to this, they tricked the Forest God to teach them some incantations that would empower them to ‘eat’ men. But the Forest God, realising that he had been tricked, taught men to hunt these ‘witches’ out.
The economics of witch-hunting in the eastern parts of the country reveals the custom as cold-blooded and designed. It is never an act of impulse carried out in the heat of the moment. The reason why convictions are conspicuous by their absence is that there is a hand-in-glove arrangement between the local police and the ojhas (faith healers) who are reportedly paid Rs.425 per witch and each ojha bags a contract of attending to 10 to 15 witches at a time. The police is rewarded with a handsome commission to look the other way.
Academic scholars and researchers of witchcraft have gone on to state that witchcraft-related homicides of women have been more frequent in the tribal populations of India than in other groups and nations. Barman, M. in Persecution of women: Widows and witches. Calcutta, India: Indian Anthropological Society, 2002, claims that witch hunts are a form of persecution of widows. Her analysis, based on a case study of the Malda district in West Bengal, confirms the findings of previous studies of the subject, that is, that witch hunts in India are mainly caused by struggles among widows and husbands’ kin over property.
In sum, witch-burning is a brutal and heinous crime that takes a helpless, vulnerable, illiterate woman, picks her almost at random, and murders her for a crime she never committed. Most of the time, she does not know what is happening to her, much less, why.