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From Superstition to Savagery
August 8 2005 at 02:46PM
By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
(originally published at

PALANI, India -- At sundown, Pusanidevi Manjhi recalled, nine village men stormed into her house shouting, "Witch, witch!" and dragged her out by her hair as her six small children watched helplessly.

"This woman is a witch!" the men announced to the villagers, said Manjhi, 36. She said they tied her ankles together and locked her in a dark room.

"They beat me with bamboo sticks and metal rods and tried to pull my nails out. 'You are a witch, admit it,' they screamed at me again and again," Manjhi said, tearfully recalling her four days of captivity in June.

"They accused me of casting an evil spell on their paddy crop that was destroyed in a fire. I begged them and told them I was not a witch," she said, showing wounds on her legs, thighs, hips and shoulders one recent morning in this village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

After a police investigation, the men who attacked Manjhi were arrested. An official said that the attack was spurred by a powerful landowner who owned rice paddies in the village and used local superstition to mask his attempts to maintain control.

Threats and charges of witchcraft occur in a number of Indian states that have large tribal populations with traditional beliefs about witches. Indian newspapers periodically publish reports about women who, after being accused of being witches, have been beaten, had their heads shaved or had strings of shoes hung around their necks. Some have been killed.

In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the inability to give birth to a son. But social analysts and officials said that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for carrying out violence against women.

"Superstition is only an excuse. Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes it is used to punish women who question social norms," said Pooja Singhal Purwar, an official at the Jharkhand social welfare department.

"Women from well-to-do homes in the village are never branded witches," Purwar said. "It is always the socially and economically vulnerable women who are targeted and boycotted."

Purwar said she sees an average of five women a month being denounced as witches and tortured in rural Jharkhand. Her department has drawn up a public information project to oppose the practice, providing information at village fairs and conducting street performances and puppet shows. Police at the local level have been alerted to track the cases of women who are attacked, she said.

While Manjhi was imprisoned by her captors, her husband, a farmhand, sought help from the village elders, who called a meeting to determine if Manjhi was a witch and summoned a witch doctor for verification. But by then, word spread and the police arrived.

The nine men were charged under a Jharkhand state law that forbids accusing people of being witches. One of them was Gahan Lal, the man whose paddy had caught fire. Lal later confessed to torturing Manjhi.

"Gahan Lal was a powerful landlord. There were fights all the time in the village over land and wages," said Jayant Tirkey, the police officer investigating the case. "When his paddy caught fire, he blamed [Manjhi] for casting an evil spell. But that is merely an excuse. His real motive is to instill fear among the poor."

Tirkey said he thinks that village witch doctors are to blame for superstitious practices, but added that witch doctors are not arrested and tried because they are not directly involved in the violence.

"I never name a witch. I only give villagers some clues to find her," said Leena Oraon, who is known as a witch doctor in Aragate village and who says she studies rice grains to ascertain the presence of a witch in the village. "Today's doctors cannot cure ailments that are caused by a witch's curse. That is why people come to me."

In a case three years ago in Lalganj village, an elderly woman, Baili Kashyap, was branded a witch for supposedly causing sickness in the family of a relative. The relatives, who allegedly were engaged in a land dispute with her, tied her to a tree and slit her throat with a sickle while others in the village watched. Six men are in prison for the murder.

"My mother-in-law was not a witch. They were after our land. But the entire village just stood and watched the murder," said Kashyap's daughter-in-law, Reena, 28. "They believed she was a witch and deserved to die."

According to a study by the Free Legal Aid Committee, an advocacy group that works against witch-hunting, only 2 percent of people charged with witch-hunting are convicted in court.

"People go scot-free because witnesses are hard to come by. Villagers often approve of the torture meted out to these women," said Girija Shankar Jaiswal, a lawyer who heads the organization. "They think witch-hunting is a heroic act and that it will clean the society of evil."

Only two Indian states, Jharkhand and Bihar, have outlawed witch-hunting. Last year, one of India's northeastern states, Tripura, conducted a discussion in the legislative assembly about the need to ban the practice of witch-hunting. After a day-long debate, the assembly unanimously decided that killing of people for practicing witchcraft should be prevented.

However, members failed to reach a consensus on whether witchcraft was a science or superstition.


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