Lifestyle & Belief

Secret Circle? Witch hunts still routine in parts of India


Dressed as a witch, Leigh Kosega (R) and Zabell Carstens dressed as Mary Poppins stand near a bon fire October 25, 2003 in Huntingtown, Maryland.


Mark Wilson

Forget the CW.  In India, the Secret Circle is real life.  And real death. 

This year in Assam, more than 10 people have been killed in witch hunts -- and not the metaphorical kind, reports India Today.  Meanwhile, nationwide, as many as 2,500 women have been killed after being branded as witches over the past 15 years, according to unofficial estimates.

The reason: In India's poorly educated, undeveloped regions, accusations of the practice of black magic are used to justify vendettas, steal property and settle personal scores, India Today says.

Most witch-hunts reported this year were from Kokrajhar, Udalguri and Sonitpur districts. The practice is also prevalent in Kamrup (rural), Goalpara, Chirang, Baska, Lakhimpur and Karbi Anglong districts. The districts are marked by rampant illiteracy, poor accessibility and a severe lack of basic infrastructure, including in health care, education, sanitation, and potable water. Inevitably, locals fall back on ojhas and bejs to heal and, often, bring the dead back to life.

On October 9, Akkas Ali from Juria in Nagaon district was declared dead by doctors of snake bite. His family invited several ojhas [witch doctors] who claimed they could revive him. In a similar case in Guwahati on September 20, ojhas attempted over three days to revive a 45-year-old woman, Sarala Devi, who died of snake bite. Her body was finally placed in a raft and set afloat on the Brahmaputra. "Someday, some ojha might find the body and bring her back to life," says a relative.

So are witch hunts directed at women as a means of enforcing local morality?  Yes and no.  According to local authorities, branding someone a witch is often an excuse to settle scores, or gain at another's expense, India Today reports. "Some alleged witch-killings are nothing but the handiwork of the land mafia," the magazine quotes a police officer in Sonitpur district as saying.

The Assam State Women's Commission has initiated the process towards a law to deal with witch-hunting on the lines of those in other Indian states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the magazine said.  

In June, Rajasthan -- another state plagued with the problem -- introduced a law to deal with witch hunts. But an editorial published at the time in the Calcutta Telegraph newspaper (whose home state neighbors Assam) said a national law is needed to eradicate the victimization of women.

Some states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh do have specific laws against witch hunts. Chhattisgarh’s Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act, 2005, lays down a three-year prison term for people who accuse a woman of being a tonahi or dayan and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who causes physical harm to a woman by calling her a “witch”. The Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 1999, in Bihar and the Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001, in Jharkhand also lay down similar punishments for people indulging in witch hunts.

Maharashtra is one state that tried to enact a law against witch hunts and other superstitious practices some years ago. It failed primarily because of opposition from some religious groups that felt that the law might do away with certain ancient rites altogether. However, the Maharashtra government is apparently planning to introduce a bill to combat the social ills of witchcraft and human sacrifice once again.

Again, though witch hunts are prevalent in some districts of West Bengal like Purulia, Bankura and Birbhum, the state has not taken any legal action to try and curb the practice.