Women in the tribal villages of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh are victims of superstition. Take the case of Bhuri Bai (38) of Baman village in Jhabua district. Last year, she was brutally beaten before being paraded through the village. Ironically, the culprits knew her well: they were her neighbours of many years. Strangely enough, they had been led into believing that she was a witch.
Bhuri Bai is no exception: every year, a number of similar cases emerge from the state. Yet, what is most baffling is that such cases find a quiet mention in government records. Even the attitude of the police is disappointing. According to villagers, what the police encourage is that they settle the matter mutually.
Bhuri Bai's misery began when an 'ojha' (sorcerer) declared her responsible for the death of a child. After the boy's last rites, a piece of flesh was said to have been found near the pyre. The village 'ojha' lost no time in blaming Bhuri Bai and instigating the villagers to attack her. Her husband, Keshav, barely managed to save her from their deathblows.
There are others who have not been so fortunate. According to police records, of the last three years, 22 women were branded witches and beaten to death, in Jhabua district alone. Elaborates social worker Rahul Kumar (34), "Witchcraft is common to the Jhabua, Dhar and Khargone districts, and women are usually treated as animals. Victims are afraid to lodge a police complaint, fearing retaliation. After all, they have to live in the same village, amidst their tormentors."
Some time ago, Rahul Kumar, along with a group of people and women victims, called on the then Jhabua Superintendent of Police (SP), Umesh Joga, with a written memorandum, urging him to tackle the menace. However, the SP said that he could take up the issue only when a FIR was lodged against the perpetrators.
Belief in witchcraft is not uncommon in the districts of Rajgarh, Khargone, Badwani and Jhabua where 'ojha's boast of their powers to detect a witch - albeit for a price. Villagers simply need to cough up a goat, a bottle of wine or fowl to make an 'ojha' smell a witch. Unfortunately, in this quid pro quo scheme of things, the villagers fail to smell a rat. Shyam Singh (37), from village Pisnaval, believes in the existence of witches. He also feels that only an 'ojha' has the 'cure' for the 'condition'.
While Inspector Anirud Prasad in village Bamania reiterates that the police have nabbed sorcerers and are pro active, social activists believe that the police only responds to untoward incidents, rather than nipping things in the bud as is required.
Congress worker and social activist Amitabh Shukla from Pisnaval village of Badwani district reveals, "In most cases, women are so humiliated that they cannot continue to live in their village." In fact, the family of the mobbed woman also ends up living like outcasts and soon after her death many are forced to flee their village.
While 'ojha's cast their spell over villagers, creating a sense of fear and insecurity through their hogwash talk of black magic, witchcraft, and superstition, the real reasons why women are branded witches is plain economics or sex.
Women who shun sexual advances of their neighbours are often made to pay a heavy price: the spurned and avenging man can have the woman declared a witch and, subsequently, get them shunned from society with the connivance of a greedy 'ojha'. Widows, who refuse to relinquish claim over their husband's property, can similarly be compelled into compliance.
Witch hunting is widespread in Madhya Pradesh, but is more dominant in the tribal-dominated areas of the state. Explains Rajjo Malviya, member, State Women Commission, "The people of the area are uneducated... The sorcerers are taking advantage of this."
Kusum Mahdele, state minister for Women and Child Development, assured that the government was working towards ending the evil. "...It is expected that a law will soon be put in place," she said.
While government data puts the deaths at around 90, it is estimated that many more 'witches' have been killed during the last three years in the region. Several deaths have gone unreported, while superstition may not have been cited as the cause for others.