Jharkhand’s ‘witches’ lead tragic, un-magical lives

Asian News Service, Jan. 13, 2003
Nityanand Shukla, Indo-Asian News Service

Witches are not fairytale creatures with black hats, robes and sparkling wands but are often helpless women hounded and feared by many in Jharkhand.

The problem is widespread in tribal areas, where woman accused of practising witchcraft are ostracised and even tortured by superstitious tribe members.

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Most of the women accused of being witches are widows or without sons. Often, tribe women without male offspring try to sacrifice young children in the superstitious belief that this will help them beget a son. Some “witches” also reportedly use black magic to cure the tribal people of their ailments.

In villages, ‘Ojhas’, or witch doctors, are the ones who brand women as witches. While the Ojhas are spared tribals’ wrath, witches are mercilessly hounded.

Said a social worker known only as Vasvai: “You cannot imagine the situation of women branded as witches. They are sometimes forced to eat human excreta.”

The problem is so acute in some places that the state government formulated the Anti Witchcraft Act in 2001 — aimed at preventing people from branding women as witches as well as apprehending women who practise black magic.

A person charged with falsely accusing a woman of practicing witchcraft will be imprisoned for six months and pay a fine of Rs 2,000. A woman found guilty of practicing witchcraft can face a year in prison and a Rs 3,000 fine or both.

The rate of conviction, however, is dismally low.

Jharkhand registered 154 cases of “witch branding” in 2001 and about 200 in 2002. The state capital Ranchi registered 23 cases of “witch branding” in 2001 and 17 in 2002.

But social workers say that the problem is much more widespread.

“When the matter is taken to the courts, only 10 percent of the accused are punished. The witch doctors often go unpunished because most people do not have the courage to testify against them,” said a senior police officer.

Added Vasvai: “The Anti Witchcraft Act is not implemented strictly. And, there is no rehabilitation policy for women falsely branded witches.” She had asked the government to make a list of “witch doctors”, but this was disregarded.

Government officials also want a rehabilitation policy. “These women should be given a chance to lead to respectable lives,” said Home Secretary Sushma Singh.

Till that happens, women falsely branded witches will have to suffer being ostracised by their fellow tribals, without the help of any magical powers.

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