“The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.” (H L.MENCKEN, Baltimore Evening Sun, September 14, 1925.) [1]

Benightedness of mankind is like a stagnant ocean, it halts progress. Illiteracy has been the mother of numerous social evils. Superstition is a societal evil being one such belief, that has found widespread acceptance in our culture, with its roots in the ancient traditional customs and thoughts. We have fostered this credence to the extent of making it bigger than man itself! Superstition has become the master of man, and as a dictator, it blurs all rationality and logic, thereby instilling tremendous fear and threat in mankind. And where fear is, cruelty and egotism are bound to creep in – such is the case with the nefarious acts of Witchcraft Branding and hunting! It is practiced in varying degrees and various ways across many regions of the globe. However as the youth of this nation, what must trouble us, are its grave consequences today, which strive to doom the fate of this nation.

Superstitious practices are beliefs of the feeble minded and the illiterate, and are not only practiced in the rural areas of our nation but can be both urban and rural. In the urban landscape – it is only superstition that compels us to believe in the feng-shui & bamboo trees for good luck or the urgency of reading one’s daily horoscope. When the mind is weak due to the lack of education, awareness, and exposure, it is completely devoid of the spirit of inquiry, reform and scientific temper, which pushes us to think irrationally. As Groucho Marx rightly puts it, “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere”! The superstitions we harbour, no matter how minute, indicate our patronage of fear, the same underlying emotion which propels the practitioners of witch-hunt into cruelty.

WITCHCRAFT BRANDING is one such ghastly evil of society. The irony lies in the fact that the cheer mongers of this heinous practice in their pretense of wiping out evil, aid and abet more of it by committing diabolic acts under its name. This is the magnitude to which superstition as a belief has scaled! It has not only handicapped our development but is also globally tarnishing the epithet of our being an “incredible” nation.

The practice of witch-hunting in India, which does not preclude the utmost of brutality supported by some horribly wicked and deep-rooted beliefs, have led to the torture and murder of the alleged witches. [2] It quashes an individual’s basic human right be it man or woman, since helplessness is the most relentless and deplorable condition that the victim is left to bear. All of this is done in the name and the blanket protection of superstition.

Data ascertains the fact that these barbaric practices are particularly rampant in the rural and tribal zones of at least 12 states — Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Bihar. Over 70% of our population resides in the villages – it is predominantly the womenfolk from among this lot that become the main targets of a “witch hunt”. There are several cases of children, teenagers and menfolk who have frightfully been killed on the assumption of being evil spirited. However the scores of women being tormented and succumbing to death, on account of being branded as witches is sky rocketing. This practice is majorly directed towards branding women from marginalised and weaker sections of the society as witches. Women who fall an easy prey to this are the helpless uneducated lot who are powerless and can’t fight back; some widows, some orphans who have nobody rendering them support or defending them in their hour of need.

In the past 15 years over 2100 women have been killed as stated by Rebecca Vernon in the Cornell University International Law Journal.[3] These ‘alleged witches’ are exterminated in the most monstrous of ways, after a great deal of torture that they undergo. Apart from the greatest loss – that of honour, modesty and dignity, these vulnerable women are accused of bringing misfortune to others in the village as practitioners of “Dayan Pratha”,[4] known in rural India as the practice of witchcraft. We suppose that the lack of awareness, consideration and incredible rates of illiteracy relieve the inhabitants of this area from common prudence, morality, ethics, sensitivity and humanity which is why even the death of an animal, a bad harvest, illness of villagers or of the family members of the accused becomes a source of condemning some poor woman as a witch or a dayan. There are numerous instances of women who behave differently on account of their mental health issues and hormonal changes and are sadly labeled as witches and evil spirited.

However, monstrosity reaches its peak when this irrational belief is intentionally used, i.e. (knowing it is untrue in a particular case) as a blanket protection to get away with one’s personal agenda, either in the prevalence of patriarchal attitudes, property disputes, gender inequality, settling personal scores, for the preservation of the caste system, for punishing a woman who repudiates sexual advances, more so there have been numerous incidents which will lead us to say that gang rape serves as quite an incentive to brand women as witches.

So these women are branded as witches either for economic gain or sexual vengeance, all of which seem to be the cases of a ‘Murder’ in the garb of superstition.

‘Witch hunting’ involves the branding of women as witches, mostly after an ‘ojha’ or witch doctor confirms that a woman is a witch in the most illogical and inconceivable degree. A woman who is branded a witch is then subjected to numerous forms of torture from beatings, burns, being paraded naked through the village, public flogging, mutilation, electrocution, being forced to eat human excrement, to rape, having wooden or sharp objects inserted in her genital parts and various forms of psychological torture. In some cases her hair is cut off, her teeth are pulled out, her nose or other body-parts are cut off, sometimes they are burnt at the stake or their limbs hacked off, ultimately the victim is socially ostracized and her property and valuables are seized. The critical point is that women, who are accused of witchcraft in India, often do not seek any legal or police assistance.[5] Humiliation, social boycott, poverty, the lack of awareness or resources and primarily a lack of education leads to zero protection, lack of access to rights and a loss of self-esteem.

There are no provisions for providing rehabilitation, relief, or any form of compensation to women after they have been identified as witches. Thus in many cases, even if FIRs are lodged and an arrest is made, the woman is still left to bear the brunt of her injuries, or the social stigma she is faces from the others in the village. Often women continue to live ostracized from their villages and their lands, with no means of sustenance. In cases where the woman is murdered, her next of kin do not even get any form of compensation or relief.[6]

These practices persist in India not only due to the social sanctions given to them but also because the police do not treat these crimes equivalent to murders. We as the youth ought to realise that Witchcraft Branding or Witch Hunting is no less if no more than murder, and what is most unnerving is the fact that this act is committed openly without regret, all for either the sake or the false pretence of blind faith.

This clearly depicts the plight of women in areas such as these. We cannot in this day and age, as a developing nation with great potential and a promising future, bear to rely on such apocryphal superstitions! We ought to break free from the manacles of blind faith, for two reasons – firstly it is bizarre & completely ludicrous and thereby makes no sense – it is disrupting the minds of the masses and breaching peace in society; and secondly despite being useless, it is still being misused against innocent and helpless people (majorly women) – another irony!

Laws should be made, not against quacks but against superstition — Rudolf Virchow[7]
(In Fielding Hudson Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine (1966), 577)

Several states from among the ones plagued with this issue have various laws in place. Such as the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, The Code of Criminal Procedure, various State laws, and bills which are either soon to be tabled or are on the horizon, all of which aim at curbing this grave menace within these societies. These existing provisions, suitable to the region specific conditions which aim at preventing this practice, and protecting women, are just an exercise in futility, in so long as it does not amount into any action. Hence, it is the implementation, enactment and enforcement of the laws that we ought to consider.

Moreover laws alone serve no purpose so long as the mindsets of the masses are immune to them – this is where education, awareness and exposure step in. Changing the primitive and backward attitude of the masses will not only liberate but also elevate the society to live out the true meaning of humanity. Ultimately, pushing the wheels of justice via the implementation of effective laws.

The Government of India has decided to introduce laws with stricter penalties in this arena but it is equally imperative to spread awareness among the people. However, what is of paramount importance is national legislation – uniform laws which are devoid of any form of leniency, the absence of which deepens the crisis.

A little food for thought ~

In view of the abovementioned article which dwells on the plight of the Indian women who are victims of witchcraft branding and hunting – the following recommendations and suggestions are forwarded, as a move to enhance the glory of the Indian legal system, better its functioning and thereby strengthen its value –

Expand Education~ educational facilities and communication must be upgraded – starting with schools (all levels), colleges, universities and the like. Doing away with the rudimentary system of teaching and enhancing the quality of teachers. Most importantly imparting social education – making an extra effort for the future of tomorrow to be aware about the ills of today.

Collaborating Forces ~ The government needs to collaborate with NGOs to bring about a change through awareness campaigns regarding blind faith and educate the masses about the falsity of the concept of the evil spirit, provide them with funds to help out victims, utilise the benefits of first-hand information received from such organisations etc.

Governmental Support ~ the government must aid and motivate the anti-superstition activists and must provide them all the support and funds that they so rightly deserve, so as to eradicate this menace. There have been major killings of individuals who are undaunted in raising their voice against such evils – hence they ought to be protected. Moreover the government can also look at ways and means so as to collaborate with them, since they are working at the primary level.

Support & Guidance Cells ~ it is also pertinent for these victims to get the opportunity to have a voice so as to find the best possible solution to their grievances. For atrocities of dowry, child, women and drug trafficking, rape and all matters alike, there happen to be very many cells, as opposed to those for dealing with “superstitious crimes”, and particularly – Witch Hunts.

Revive the Executive Body Concerned – The Police
Sensitisation and training of police offices regarding the issue of witch hunting, confidentiality during testimony of victim as well as witnesses, FIR’s – speedy registration and notable action, monitoring and follow up of reported incidences, relief and compensation for victims of witch hunting and family.[1]
Deploy subordinate officers to the affected and aggression prone areas, so as to prohibit the commission of such devilish crimes in the future, to keep a check on the functioning of the NGO’s, Rehabilitative centres, and various other departments.

Proper and augmented Medical Facilities including psychological assistance and counselling of victims, awareness and enforcement of the right to free health care for those below the poverty line.[2]

Launching of Campaigns against superstition and witch-hunting practices and organizing marches, drives, movements , the intervention of the Media which is the fourth pillar of the democracy and most influential today, utmost utilisation of social media, public awareness meetings against through combined efforts of government, administration, voluntary organizations, NGO’s, schools, colleges etc., especially in regions where this problem is most rampant. This will ensure awareness of the problem and of the rights of the victim.

REHABILITATION & COMPENSATION~ Organizing Women’s groups in these areas, and drawing up creative plans in consultation with such groups to enhance the self-confidence and economic independence of vulnerable women in such areas. Building such rehab centres, shelter homes and the like for these women which are connected to NGO’s. Special provisions relating to compensation and relief must be made and thereby granted to the victim or the family for the damage or loss suffered.

Apart from this, cooperation among the various organisations and branches and between every individual working towards eradicating this menace must prevail. The ignorant and illiterate who believe and practice such despotic forms of superstition are only the doomsayers of this nation and we ought to blot them out of our system via education, as mentioned above, which infuses rationality into the human mind, ultimately leading to progressive inventions and effective implementation of law.

Even if this article fails to serve the purpose of enlightening my audiences on this very concept, in the least it could remind us all that witchcraft branding does persist and is not a custom long forgotten, bringing any issue to the forefront is in itself a victory for a writer. This is a grave social evil which finds its roots in superstition (a belief in the unbelievable) and is thereby disrupting the development of our country in the most shameful manner possible. We are the future of tomorrow – once we come to terms with this reality and detect the problem, we are sure to wipe it out from our system and find a solution. One does not necessarily have to be in a powerful or dominant position to bring about a difference; we can bring about awareness in our own capacity which leads to situational analysis. I have, it’s your turn now.

Divyashri Puri (V-II)

[1] Mencken/H.L.”Quotes”.www.goodreads.com.Web.22 June.2016

[2] Shaffer, Ryan. “Modern Witch Hunting and Superstitious Murder in India”. www.csicop.org. Sceptical Inquirer .Volume 38.4.July/August 2014.Web. 23 June.2016

[3] Women News Network. “India: Protective Laws Fall Short for Women Charged with Witchcraft”.www.womennewsnetwork.net . 21 March. 2010.Web. 23 June.2016

[4] Ibid

[5] Legal Team HRDI. “Draft of Prevention and Prohibition of Witch Hunting Bill”. www.hrdi.com . 2013. Web. 24 June. 2016

[6] Singh Rakesh. “Witch-Hunting: Alive and Kicking”. www.isidelhi.org . January/March .2011.Web. 24 June.2016

[7] Virchow/Rudolf. “Rudolf Ludwig Karl Virchow > Quotes”.www.goodreads.com. 13 October.2013.Web.23 June.2016

[8] Supra Note. 3

[9] Ibid.

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