The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Casting the Evil Eye: Witch Trials in Tribal India By Archana Mishra, Roli, Rs 350

When Archana Mishra calls her explorations in the poorest tribal villages of East and West Singbhum “travels in the Land of Witches”, it sounds fanciful. But there is nothing fanciful about the chilling accounts of witch-hunting in her book. The fear that haunts the victims is not of death, but of a recurring nightmare. They might be made to walk naked through the village, be gang-raped, have their heads tonsured or their breasts cut off, their teeth broken, or be forced to swallow urine and human faeces, to eat human flesh or the raw blood of a chicken. These are the actual experiences of the women who speak up, whose pictures endow the book with an extra horror and pitifulness.

Through painstaking research and difficult, sometimes menacing, interviews, Mishra builds up the social milieu that makes witch-hunting in the villages of Jharkhand a frequent affair. The mantras are meticulously collected and translated, adding enormously to the documentary value of the book. What strikes her, and her reader, most painfully is the almost unshakeable belief in sorcery among a poor and illiterate people. To put witch-hunting down purely to gender-conflict is to oversimplify the phenomenon. Belief in sorcery is combined with an unfathomable distrust, even hatred, of women embedded deep in the social psyche.

The exploiters of this complex blend of ignorance, fear, envy, hatred and superstition are the ojhas, the headmen, the sokhas and the priests, the experts of jhaad-phunk, witch-doctors and quacks. Not all of these are men. Among the ojhas that Mishra persuades to speak, always in the guise of a victim of witchcraft in need of help, is an ojhain. She tells a strange tale of possession by a female deity, and powers granted her to heal. Interestingly, she has barely escaped being branded as a witch by the men in her village because the deity who possessed her frightened them away. No story is quite simple.

But the stories yield two distinct features for Mishra. Untimely deaths are a sure sign for the villagers that a witch is at work. Diseases are seen as a distortion of the “natural”; they point to “unnatural” forces. Mishra describes the hideously dirty surroundings in which the villagers live, washing their utensils in muddy puddles where their pigs bathe and cows defecate. Women suffer the most, they work the hardest and often give birth hurriedly in the corners of their dark little huts. Death and disease are, ironically, the villagers’ most natural foes. It is the inability to deal with them that revalidates their belief in sorcery.

The other feature is economic. The rituals to penalize a witch and perform purification benefit not only the ojhas but the entire village. Driving the woman out of her home means the seizing of her assets. That is why witch-hunting often has its source in family or neighbourhood quarrels. The victims are left traumatized and destroyed, intractable evidence of the social urge to dehumanize and cast out the woman. “It was neither murder nor rape, nor a dowry death, but something much worse,” says Mishra, describing Chhutni Mahatani’s ordeal of having to swallow human excreta.

The villain, for Mishra, is not the rural society of eastern India, but the government with its promises of health, education and development, and the administration for its refusal to take the crime seriously. Mishra, while providing tables of witchcraft cases for the regions she surveys, also details existent laws and discusses their shortcomings. Her accounts of the work being done by non-governmental organizations further underline the authorities’ neglect. At the end of the book, the real Land of Witches turns out to be far more fantastic than any that could be imagined. Only the real witches there have to be identified all over again.

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