It was a little after midnight and Kanjia Marhatola village was in deep slumber. The tamarind tree in the middle of the village in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district swayed gently in the night breeze. Matiyas Khalko was woken up not by a knock but loud banging on his door, so furious that it threatened to bring down the creaky door any moment. Matiyas, his two teenage daughters, and wife Jesinth were sleeping inside. Sensing trouble, he did not open the door. Minutes later, the door yielded and the villagers barged in. They separated Jesinth from her daughters and her husband. “Take me wherever you want but why are you beating me?” Matiyas heard Jesinth’s voice pleading with her attackers for one last time. A few moments later, someone in the crowd hit her with an axe and she slumped. They dragged her by the hair till they reached the tamarind tree. She was the last of five women who were hacked to death that night, says Matiyas. There were four bodies already lying there. They killed Eitwariya first, then the mother-daughter duo of Kalki and Titri. The fourth to be hacked down was Madni Khalko, whose house was at the other end of the village. And then they turned on Jesinth.
If the tamarind tree could speak, this is what it would narrate: on the night of August 7, 2016, and in the morning that followed, five women were tortured to death. Branded as witches, they were dragged out of their homes in the dead of the night, stripped and beaten, assembled before the tree and hacked with an axe which is used to chop wood.
“Till the morning the bodies remained there and I watched villagers hitting and kicking them long after they had been rendered lifeless. Villagers were even woken up from their sleep and asked to kick the women,” says Matiyas.
Standing beside Matiyas, his 17-year-old daughter Anima shudders when she thinks of the night. She, along with her sister, Anu, somehow managed to sneak out on a Scooty to alert the local police station. When they returned with four constables, the villagers attacked their vehicle forcing them to flee. The families of the women have been socially ostracised by the rest of the village.
Tight-lipped on the tragedy
An eerie silence prevails in the village months after the women were hacked to death. Forty people have been taken into custody. The police have camped permanently in the only primary school of the village — classes for children are now held in the open.
The cries of “she is a witch” still rings in the ears of Karamdeo Khalko, as he recounts the horror of how a mob of 50 people including children dragged his mother Madni. “I could recognise most of them. Even before I saw them I recognised their voices,” he says. The death of a boy on August 2, he adds, had triggered murmurs in the village that it was the work of witches — something Karamdeo at that time had not paid much heed to. The 28-year-old farmer is still unable to understand the reason for the mindless violence against the women. “We did not fight with anyone in the village. Why did they do this to us?” he says.
Unlike Karamdeo, Sibi Khalko, whose sister and mother were killed, does not speak. All he is willing to say after much persuasion is, “I saw it. I was awake.” Seventeen-year-old Sukumar Khalko, a school dropout, is the only one willing to take us to the tamarind tree and he showed where the bodies of his mother Eitwariya and other women lay. Dayamani Barla, a social worker, does not feel it is superstition alone that had led to violence in the village. She hints at some sinister, ulterior motive behind the crime that has shocked the State and the nation at large.
A replay 150 km away
On December 9, a similar rerun took place more than 150 km away. An elderly woman, Susari Buru, was put on fire by her neighbour Anita Somasoe in Mander area of Khunti district. The accused believed that Susari indulged in witchcraft and blamed her for the death of her twin daughters. At Tapkara police station, the FIR register has a neat complaint letter written in Hindi and a thumb impression under it of Susari’s husband, Niranjan Buru. A case has been registered against Anita under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and sections 3 and 4 of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, 1999, enacted in the undivided Bihar State which also included present-day Jharkhand.
When asked what the punishment prescribed under relevant sections is, a police officer at the Tapkari thana smiles and pleads ignorance. “ Iske liye to granth padhna padega (For that one has to read the law books),” he says.
Krishna Kumar Srivastava, an officer at a police outpost about 20 km from the police station, is on a patrol with half a dozen others. He agrees to show us the spot where the crime was committed. “A [burnt] matchstick and a container with about half a litre of kerosene were found along with a charred body when we reached,” he says. “At daybreak, an old man came to us crying that his wife has been set on fire. While he was explaining it to us, a woman carrying a month-old dead baby in her lap appeared. Without any remorse she admitted to committing the crime,” he adds. Niranjan, the old man Kumar refers to, weeps inconsolably when asked about the incident. He keeps pointing at the wooden door of his thatched house through which the woman and two others had barged in.
“The December 9 incident is the latest of a series of incidents of atrocities committed in the name of witch-hunt in Jharkhand, which has seen as many deaths — if not more — as that due to Maoist violence since the State of Jharkhand was created in 2001,” says Ajay Jaiswal, secretary, Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA). This year, 51 women have been killed on the suspicion of being witches, he claims. The Rajya Sabha was informed in June this year that 127 women branded as witches were killed in Jharkhand between 2012 and 2014. And as per police records, there have been 98 deaths and 1,857 incidents of witch-hunt from 2014 to June 2016 in the State.
Branded, killed or banished
In fact, just a day after the incident at Tapkara, a 40-year-old woman was bludgeoned to death with a gas cylinder and then hacked into pieces by her brother-in-law. Panchami Devi alias Shefali Gorai was not killed in a rural hinterland but in the heart of industrial town Jamshedpur. Birbal Gorai, the brother-in-law, had threatened to kill her almost a year ago when his father had died, only to execute it brutally on December 10.
Besides those actually killed and their bereaved family members, there are many who have to live under constant fear of attacks after being branded witches by the local people. According to a survey done by ASHA last year, more than 150 women have been branded witches in 21 blocks and 78 gram panchayats of the State.
Gomi Tirkey, branded a witch by villagers of Bala in Khunti district, cannot tell her age precisely. “Must be between 50 and 60 years,” she says while taking a break from threshing rice. Over the past few months she has been seeking refuge in another village about eight km from her own. “My son sometimes comes to meet me here. The daughters are away working in brick kilns in Nadia [West Bengal],” she says. A question about her grandchildren brings tears to her eyes. Last year Gomi and her family paid Rs.40,000 to the villagers who had demanded that she leave or face consequences. When the monsoons returned bringing with them diseases and death, the villagers turned on Gomi. “I was pushed and hit by them and I got hurt… Finally I left the village,” she says.
In an uncanny coincidence, decades ago Gomi’s mother-in-law too was branded a witch and driven out of the same village. “I have not filed a police complaint because my son still lives in the village. Even if they are arrested, on their release, they will return and my family members have to live with them,” she says.
Forging the fightback
Chutni Mahato, 62, from Birbhas village in Saraikela-Kharsawan district along the West Bengal-Jharkhand border, comes across as a gutsy woman. There is a prominent scar on her forehead, and she vividly remembers how she got it: on September 5, 1995, she was attacked with an axe.
“I ran away from the village with my four children and spent months under a tree,” she recounts. Asked why was she branded a witch? Chutni flashes a smile and begins her story. “There was a young woman in my village in love with a man from another village. When she vomited one day, I joked that she must be pregnant. When her family members came to know that she was indeed pregnant, they quickly branded me a witch,” she says. Instead of being cowed down however, Chutni made it her life’s mission to fight the practice of witch-hunting till her last breath. Since 1997, she has come to the rescue of no less than 60 women.
Fatu Devi Kumharin was one such woman, who, on suspicion of being responsible for the death of a child, was locked in a room with the body of the deceased five-year-old The incident dates back to 2009 when she was visiting her relatives in the neighbouring villages of Birbhas. Three years later, her sister suffered a similar fate: Nilmoni Kumharin was attacked with a spade by her brother when family members took ill one after another.
Chutni has come to Ranchi on a chilly December morning to attend a seminar at the Ranchi University titled “Dayan Pratha Ek Abhishap” (Witchcraft, A Curse). As a bank official — seizing the opportunity — tries to teach digital transactions to the people gathered, Chutni stops him in his tracks to bring the attention back to women like her who have been branded as witches or are fighting against the villagers — Santi Sardar, Urmila Devi, Jyostna Pramanik, Lacha Murmu, Budhu Tudu.
At the seminar, ruling Bharatiya Janata Party legislator and the party’s chief whip in the Jharkhand Assembly Radha Krishna Kishore says, “When the Prime Minister has undertaken this huge exercise of demonetisation and digital India, the practice of hunting witches shows that we still live in the dark ages.” Kishore assures the audience that the House will take up the incidence of witch-hunts on a priority basis in the Budget session. Sixteen years since the State was formed, no discussion on witch-hunt has taken place in the Jharkhand Assembly, claims Kishore.
A practice rooted in ignorance
Only last year, Kishore had to flee for his life after his attempts to stop a ‘Bhoot Mela (ghost/witch fair) at Saraidih village in Palamu district, failed. “People here brand a woman witch and kill her even when the village well goes dry in summer,” he says.
“It’s a kind of social acceptability of a wrong practice which makes it difficult to stop it. Often there is no evidence and culprits go scot-free,” says Amit Khare, Principal Secretary of Planning and Finance, Jharkhand, who is remembered for his innovative ways to prevent witchcraft and witch-hunts while he was Deputy Commissioner (DC) of West Singhbhum district in 1995. “I had introduced a postcard system whereby anyone, without disclosing his or her identity, could inform the DC about any instances of witchcraft being practised — it got a good response at the time,” recalls Khare.
Sampat Meena, Inspector General of the Criminal Investigation Department and chief of the State police’s women and child cell, launched a women’s helpline in 2014. “We’ve done GIS mapping of all the previous cases of witchcraft reported in the past five years. Hotspots have been identified and a three-pronged strategy to curb witchcraft has been set in place: strict legal action in the cases reported and their regular follow-up by senior officers, proactive intelligence collection to take pre-emptive measures to avoid such incidents, and awareness generation through local police stations and local elected bodies such as panchayats,” says Meena.
The law is in place. According to Jharkhand’s Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001, the punishment for identifying a woman as witch is imprisonment for up to three months and/or a fine of Rs.1,000. Similarly, causing harm to anyone in the name of witchcraft can lead to imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine of Rs.2,000. Ojhas found practising sorcery can be jailed for up to a year and/or fined Rs.2,000. “All of these are cognisable and non-bailable offences,” says Meena. She, however, acknowledges that the biggest challenge on the ground is illiteracy. “Villagers are ignorant that witchcraft is a punishable crime.” Superstition, health, illiteracy and property are the four major reasons for witchcraft incidents in Jharkhand, she adds.
“In this practice ojhas also play an important role… when they fail to ‘cure’ someone, they blame some women of the village as witches who are preventing the cure,” says Ranchi-based Ajitha Susan George, who has been working for the rights of tribals.
Social activist Xavier Dias says witch-hunts are so rampant in Jharkhand that whenever a new disease sets in that afflicts either people or cattle and villagers fail to comprehend it, they look for witches to kill so as to propitiate the spirits.
As women continue to be hacked and burned to death, involving the State’s youth is key, says Kunal Sarangi, the 35-year-old Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MLA from Baharagora constituency of East Singhbhum district. He wants a “dedicated allocation of budget for witchcraft” by the government to tackle superstition in the State.
What is it that sets an entire village on edge and leads to women being singled out and hunted down? A complex narrative emerges from Kankia Marhatola village offering some clues. Jesinth, for instance, was known to openly voice her dislike for the sale of liquor in the village. Titri, a single woman in her 40s, had spurned the attention of men who had taken an interest in her — perhaps this was enough to incur their hostility. Madni had opened a makeshift temple where she was the officiating priest. A pattern emerges which suggests that independent, strong-willed women may have challenged the status quo, which was enough to trigger resentment against them.
with Amarnath Tewari