The story so far: The brutal murders of two women as part of “ritualistic human sacrifices” in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala have left the country in shock. According to preliminary probe, the victims were subjected to extreme torture and sexually harassed, their body parts cut into several pieces before they were buried in a pit. Such chilling details of the killings that have emerged in the past few days have sparked a debate about the prevalence of superstitious beliefs, black magic, sorcery and other evil practices in a progressive State like Kerala. And in the absence of a comprehensive law to counter such inhuman acts, the call for a strict anti-superstition law has only grown louder.
The Elanthoor case
Earlier this month, three people were taken into custody by the Kerala Police during a probe in connection with a missing persons complaint of a woman. The interrogation led the police the to main accused Mohammed Shafi alias Rasheed, a resident of Perumbavur in Ernakulam, and through him Bhagaval Singh and his wife Laila of Elanthoor village. During interrogation, the accused not only confessed to having killed the missing woman but also another victim in a similar manner in June. Following their revelations, the three were arrested on October 11 for ‘human sacrifices’ of the two women.
The remains of the two women — Padmam, 52, and Rosli, 49 — were exhumed from near the couple’s house. Their bodies were cut into pieces and buried in different pits in the same property after sprinkling salt; to mislead investigators, turmeric saplings were planted over most of these spots, an official told The Hindu. According to the police remand report, the breasts of one of them had been chopped off and the body of the other was cut into 56 pieces.
As macabre details emerged and questions were raised over the delayed police response, a Special Investigation Team was constituted and the accused were sent into judicial custody.
The investigators discovered that the key accused Shafi was a sexual pervert, a history sheeter with more than ten cases against him, including rape and attempt to murder. He allegedly lured the two women with the promise of money. “Shafi derived sadistic pleasure from injuring and even killing the victims of his sexual perversion,” as per the Kochi police chief.
While the police are probing the possibility of ‘human sacrifices’ of more women in a similar manner and the involvement of more people, the incident has raised concerns over the growing fascination for superstitious beliefs and occult ceremonies.
What do the numbers tell?
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which maintains data on crimes in the country, provides data for deaths due to witchcraft and human sacrifices. As per the 2021 report, six deaths were linked to human sacrifices, while witchcraft was the motive for 68 killings. The maximum number of witchcraft cases were reported from Chhattisgarh (20), followed by Madhya Pradesh (18) and Telangana (11). Kerala saw two cases of human sacrifice. In 2020, India saw 88 deaths due to witchcraft and 11 died as part of ‘human sacrifices’, as per the NCRB report.
Notably, the NCRB doesn’t provide details of occult-related crimes in the country. It also doesn’t state if the overall figure includes victims of witch-hunting attacks, which have been on the rise. A private study by an NGO in 2021 found that 12 States reported cases of witch-branding, while 2,300 murders of so-called ‘witches’ were committed between 1999 and 2013 across the country.
What are the laws in India?
In India, there is no central law that exclusively deals with crimes related to witchcraft, superstition, or occult-inspired activities. In 2016, MP Raghav Lakhanpal introduced the Prevention of Witch-Hunting Bill in the Lok Sabha, but it wasn’t passed. The draft provisions included punishment for accusing or identifying a woman as a witch, use of criminal force against a woman, or torture or humiliation on the pretext of performing witchcraft.
The Indian Penal Code (IPC) also prescribes punishment for related crimes like abduction and murder, but not for harming others via furthering superstitious and outdated beliefs. In the absence of a nationwide legislation, a few States have enacted laws to counter witchcraft and protect women from deadly ‘witch-hunting’.
Bihar (1999): Bihar was the first State to enact a law to prevent witchcraft, identification of a woman as a witch and“eliminate torture, humiliation and killing of women.” The Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act came into force in October 1999. The Act describes a witch as a “woman who has been identified as a witch by someone else, having the power or intention of harming any person through the art of black magic, evil eyes, or “mantras”” and it is deemed that she will cause harm to other people or the community in any manner.
Anyone who identifies a person as a “witch” and acts to aid this identification can face a jail term of up to three months, or a fine of Rs 1,000, or both. In case of physical or mental torture, the jail term could be extended to six months, and the fine to Rs. 2,000. All offences under the Act are cognisable and non-bailable.
Jharkhand (2001): Jharkhand enacted a similar law in 2001 -- the Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act. The law, however, hasn’t been effective. A document on the Jharkhand Police website claims that the passage of the Act “has not adequately prevented the identification and murder of women labelled as witches.”
“Given the severity of the outcomes of identification [women as witches], abetment in identification and curing of ‘witches’, which almost inevitably lead to horrific crimes being committed against the women so identified, including death, inhumane treatment, mutilation, rape and various forms of mental and physical torture, the penal provisions of the Act do not adequately punish the instigators of these crimes or prevent others from engaging…” the comment reads.
In 2021, Justice Sujit Narayan Prasad, the then Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court,took suo moto cognizance of an incident where five of family in Gumla were killed after a village council sentenced them to death on the charge of being “witches”.
“It is very unfortunate that the Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 1999 has been in operation since the year 1999 and the same has been adopted by the State of Jharkhand but concrete steps have not been taken to achieve the object and intent of the Act, 1999,” the Chief Justice said in the March 2021 order.
Chhattisgarh (2005): Chhattisgarh is one of the worst-affected States in terms of witchcraft-related crimes and targeted violence against women. A witch is called a “tonahi” in the State. In 2005 the State enacted the Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act 2005 along the lines of Bihar and Jharkhand.
As per the law, a person convicted for identifying someone as a witch can be sentenced to up to three years of rigorous imprisonment with a fine. The jail term can extend up to five years if the victim is mentally or physically harassed. The law adds that when a fine is imposed, the court shall take into consideration the physical and mental damage caused to the victim including the cost of treatment.
Odisha (2013): Following the directions of the Odisha High Court to frame a law to deal with rising cases of witch-hunting in the State, the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Bill was passed by the Assembly in 2013. The law includes provisions of imprisonment up to seven years and a penalty for offenders. The bill also provides for apenalty for a witch doctor, or a person claiming to be a black magician.
Earlier this year, the Odisha State Commission for Women (SCW) sought stringent provisions in the existing Act after finding them inadequate. The panel demanded both jail and pecuniary punishment for persons found involved in sorcery-related crimes.
Maharashtra (2013): The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013 was passed after the murder of anti-superstition activist Dr. Narendra Dabholkar the same year. Dr. Dabholkar headed the anti-superstition outfit Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS).
The law was enacted to “bring social awakening and awareness in the society and to create a healthy and safe social environment with a view to protect the common people in the society against the evil and sinister practices…”
It enlists provisions for the prevention and eradication of human sacrifice and other inhuman practices. Punishment under the act is imprisonment of not less than six months and up to seven years, with a fine of not less than Rs 5,000 and up to Rs 50,000.
Rajasthan (2015): The State enacted the Rajasthan Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, 2015 to “provide for effective measures to tackle the menace of witch-hunting and prevent the practice of witchcraft.” The law prohibits witch-hunting and practising witchcraft. The punishment for crimes mentioned in the Act goes up to a jail term of not less than one year and up to seven years with a fine of not less than Rs. 50,000.
A person claiming to have supernatural or magical powers to control or cure a witch can be punished with rigorous imprisonment from one to three years, with a fine not less than Rs 10,000. A person who performs a ritual to free a woman from an evil spirit can face up to three years in prison.
All those found involved in the unnatural death of a woman due to witch-hunting can be sent to jail for seven years, extendable to imprisonment for life. They may also be fined up to Rs 1 lakh.
Assam (2015): The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2015, which received the President’s assent in 2018, provides for the complete prohibition of witch hunting. “No person shall identify, call, stigmatise, defame or accuse any other person as witch by words, or by signs or indications or by conducts or actions or any other manner or instigate, aid or abet such an act or commit witch hunting,” the law states.
Punishment under the law can go up to seven years with a fine which may extend to Rs 5 lakh. The Act also stipulates punishment for involving the community and lists the measures the police can take to protect people from witch-hunting.
Karnataka (2020): The Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act, 2017 came into effect in January 2020 after it was notified by the BJP government— which initially opposed it when it was the Opposition party. The law bans several practices related to black magic and superstition, like forcing a person to walk on fire at religious festivals and the practice of piercing rods from one side of the jaw to the other.
The law states that a court can direct the police to issue the name of a person convicted under the Act in local newspapers. “Inhuman, evil practices and black magic and advertisement, practice, propagation or promotion of such activities in violation of the Act” is punishable with up to seven years of imprisonment and with a fine ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000.
What about Kerala?
The Elanthoor human sacrifice case is not the first such case in the State. While data confirm that multiple cases are reported every year, police records show that majority of incidents took place in the countryside. Most recently, a woman in Palakkad slit the throat of her six-year-old child with a kitchen knife as a ‘sacrifice’ to appease the Gods.
The first attempt to frame an anti-superstition law came around a decade ago when back-to-back killings rocked the State. The then Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence), A. Hemachandran, prepared a working draft of the Kerala Exploitation by Superstition (Prevention) Bill in 2014, which covered elements involved in invoking supernatural powers for “wrongful gratification” including those of a monetary or sexual nature. The draft sought to make offences under the Act cognisable and non-bailable. It exempted traditional ceremonies and rituals associated with places of worship or with different faiths.
The Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) also submitted a draft ‘Superstitions and Evil Practices (Prevention and Eradication) Bill’ in the same year. The following year, MLA K. Sivadasan Nair moved a calling attention motion against evil and inhuman practices involving children. Replying to him, the Kerala government informed the Assembly that a draft on the lines of the anti-superstition law in Maharashtra was being prepared. Veteran Congress leader and former MLA P. T. Thomas also moved a private bill against black magic in 2018. All draft legislations, however, failed to see the light of day.
In 2019, the Kerala Law Reforms Commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge K. T. Thomas, submitted a fresh draft for an anti-black magic law to the State government. The Kerala Prevention of Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill, 2019 proposed strict punishment for any kind of evil practice in the name of black magic — a fine of up to Rs 50,000 and imprisonment of up to seven years, besides the punishments for offences under the Indian Penal Code. The Bill proposed spreading awareness about evil practices and publishing names and details of convicts in newspapers.
Like the 2014 Bill, the 2019 legislation also excluded harmless rituals performed at home and religious places, festivals, prayers and processions and worship at any religious or spiritual place from its purview. But like its predecessors, the Bill was also in cold storage until October 2022.
According to the latest reports, in the aftermath of the Elanthoor killings, the Kerala government is likely to consider the Kerala Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill, 2019. The government may either opt for an ordinance or a legislation on the floor of the Assembly to take the Bill forward. Sources told The Hindu that senior government functionaries and the Kerala Law Reforms Commission will vet the draft for final recommendations.
The finalisation of the Schedule of the Bill could, however, pose a serious challenge to the government, as the inclusion or exclusion of practices originating in could upset powerful socio-religious groups and civil society organisations in the State. At present, the draft Bill includes 10 practices deemed necessary to be curbed by the Law Commission.