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Written By: Anwesha Ghosh
Witch hunting, a hundred year or older practice (rather a crime) literally means chasing and killing a woman believed to have evil magic powers. Europe, Asia and Africa top the list of continents popular for witchcraft and witch hunting, in the world whereas in India Assam is called the “Indian capital of black magic”. Other parts of India too are not untouched by this disbelief of existence if witches.
But it is not merely the branding but also the inhumane practices such as torture, beatings, burns, parading naked, forcing to eat human excrement, rape, social ostracism, killing; that makes it alarming to stop and control this social stigma.
Meaning of the term witch hunting:
Witch hunting refers to the 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.
The victims of witch hunting:
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).
Areas where it is most 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 most 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.
The reasons behind such a practice of cruelty:
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 rural folk 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 a 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 a culture of subservience amongst the latter and enables the former to continue their supremacy in the community.
Sometimes, this practice is also adapted 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 in the community or is self-sustaining, or someone who refuses to return sexual favors to the socially dominant.
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 a collection of evidence for investigation difficult.
Thirdly, the punishment granted mostly is for ‘hurt’, which merely extends up to 1 year, with a fine of Rs. 1000.
Though Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand have their respective special legislation to address this problem, however 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.
Need of the hour:
As mentioned earlier, the 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 offense in the IPC. There is an urgent need for a special legislation with an 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 the 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 offense against the State (being a criminal offense), the State should initiate an investigation on its own.
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.
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.