Witch Hunts Still Persists in India
by Briana Gervat
In the last decade over two thousand women have been murdered throughout the rural districts of India because they were accused of practicing witchcraft. Single women, often widows, are the targets of these accusations. In regions such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha and in Purulia in West Bengal, these witch-hunts often begin when villagers undereducated and illiterate, visit the local witch doctor in order to make sense of everyday life: a death in the family, an inexplicable illness, bad luck. Many of these accusations have roots in property disputes, local politics, and disease, which then develop into allegations of witchcraft and then escalate into communal violence. This violence includes forcing these women to drink urine and human excrement, parading them naked down the streets of their village, and verbally and physically abusing them in their homes or in the markets. There have also been extreme cases of violence where the accused were tortured, raped, hacked to death, or burned alive. And yet, despite the prevalence and violence of these crimes their persecutors often going unpunished
According to GS Jaswal, a lawyer who helped draft the Prevention of Witch Practices Actin Jharkhand, the solution to the problem lies in legalizing and training the traditional doctors who are responsible for declaring someonea witch. “Traditional doctors live off villagers’ handouts. If they fail to cure a disease, they need someone to pin the blame on. That’s where witch accusations start,” he explains. These so-called witches are used as scapegoats to justify random events like a poor harvest, an unexpected death or a severe epidemic in a village.
Because of deeply rooted cultural beliefs in witchcraft, life after such accusations is difficult. For those victims who are lucky enough to survive a witch-hunt and choose to remain in their villages after being accused of being a witch a witch, these women continue to fear for their own safety. These women (and sometimes men and children) are often ostracized by their communities and forced to live away from their homes, begging for food and shelter on the outskirts of their village. Those that have who fled from the persecution of their villages are left without income, without shelter, and without the support of their families.
In recent years, there has been a concentrated effort among activists and legislators to prevent women from being accused of witchcraft, but outside help is often frowned upon and superstition about witchcraft remains prevalent. Over the past ten years, laws have been passed in order to prevent further atrocities against women from taking place. In 2005, The Witchcraft Atrocities (Prevention) Act was passed, which makes it illegal to accuse anyone of witchcraft but even then, the punishment for partaking in a witch-hunt carries with it a sentence of three years in prison.
Despite the fact that there are many in India that believe in witches and black magic, there is still hope. In the Kokrajhar district of Assam a woman named Birubala Rabha has taken the matter of witch hunting into her own hands. In 1985, Rabha’s son was accused of witchcraft because he suffered from mental illness. Knowing that he would be denied proper healthcare since being branded a witch, Rabha has fought tirelessly for the past thirty years to raise awareness among the citizens of rural India, an effort for which she was awarded the Upendra Nath Brahma Soldier of Humanity award in Kokrajhar on 4th July 2015. Like many others in India, Rabha believes that preventing witch-hunts is not only the responsibility of the government but also the citizens that inhabit these regions where witch hunting still persists. For it is only through educating these rural villagers in India that superstitions about witches and black magic can be eliminated.
 “The Witch-Hunts of India.” Friday. http://fridaymagazine.ae/features/the-big-story/the-witch-hunts-of-india-1.1227329#sthash.D41pxNFc.dpuf (accessed Wednesday July 15, 2015)
 “Modern Witch Hunting and Superstitious Murder in India.” Ryan Shaffer. Skeptical Inquirer. Volume 38.4, July/August 2014
http://www.csicop.org/si/show/modern_witch_hunting_and_superstitious_murder_in_india/ (accessed Wednesday July 15, 2015)
 Birubala Rabha: Crusader Against Witch Hunting In India” The Logical Indian: Efforts for Good http://thelogicalindian.com/story-feed/achievers/birubala-rabha-crusader-against-witch-hunting-in-india/ (accessed July 15, 2015)