For five years, Tribeni Sandha, 45, has done everything she can to return to her remote Gobarlundi village in Odisha’s Ganjam district. But a homecoming is still a far cry for her. For fellow villagers, she is a witch and can harm others.
“In 2017, we, three families in the Gobarlundi village, were paraded naked and forced to consume excreta of human and animals. A penalty of ₹2 lakh was imposed on each of us as penalty. As we could not pay the penalty, we were thrown out of the village. Since then, we have moved the State Human Rights Commission and knocked on the door of courts, but I cannot return [to the village],” said Ms. Sandha.
In 2019, four Dalit women were driven out from the same village after being branded as witches. They, too, now lead a nomadic life.
Last week, Haripada Patra lodged a complaint at the Joda Police Station in Keonjhar district, stating that he feared for his life. Fellow villagers had twice attempted to attack him by accusing him of practising black magic.
Despite the State government coming up with the Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act, 2013 and the Composite Action Plan to Prevent Witch-hunting-2017, the inhumane trials of witch-hunting, as may have been practised in medieval times, continue to haunt people living in rural pockets of the State.
In the seven years between 2014 and 2020, as many as 344 people have been killed on suspicion of performing witchcraft in Odisha. This year, 18 persons have already lost their lives.
The State government has directed all District Collectors to carry out training and sensitisation of anganwadi workers in villages on the evils of witch-hunting and various preventive measures for it. The administration hopes these anganwadi workers can later go on educating other villagers.
Women self-help groups (SHG) have also been roped in to educate villagers on the issue.
“Though the government has enacted an Act to punish people who are involved in the heinous act, this, however, cannot be enforced in all cases. A larger awareness is required to do away the evil practice,” said Debendra Sutar, a rationalist who has been following witch-hunting cases for several years.
According to Mr. Sutar, while tribal tradition can be blamed for the existence of such an archaic practice, in many cases, organised and influential groups of villagers perpetrate the crime.
“The main motive behind branding someone as a witch is to gobble up the property of others, seek sexual favours from widows or unmarried women, and create village funds. In most cases, the victims are scared of approaching the police to complain against such influential groups,” he said.
While the Women and Child Welfare Department has taken on the responsibility of educating anganwadi workers and women SHGs, the School and Mass Education Department has been asked to include story-based lessons on the evils of witch-hunting in the school syllabus. The Health Department has been given the task of generating awareness on the symptoms of simple diseases and their treatment, instead of taking the help of “witch doctors”, another aspect to the issue.
Law enforcement agencies, especially the police, are required to act proactively and sternly against culprits. The State Police have been asked to register cases against witch-hunting, and act immediately against criminals as the offence is cognisable and non-bailable. In districts such as Sundargarh and Mayurbhanj, where cases of witch-hunting are high, the police conduct awareness programmes at weekly local markets.
Mr. Sutar said the District and Sessions Judge of Rayagada on October 21 upheld the death sentence given to nine persons, who had brutally killed three persons by injecting pesticides in their body parts, and the judgment would go a long way in instilling fear in the minds of criminals.