The infamous medieval treatise on witch-hunting, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer, 1486), speaks in the authoritative voice of a book of law — in terms convincing in their precision, it lays down the rules with which the process of ‘justice’, involving the identification, prosecution and systematic elimination of witches (almost always women), is to be conducted. Not surprisingly, the book sat on every magistrate’s desk during the Inquisition and was referred to repeatedly in molesting, torturing and killing women by branding them the devil’s accomplices. The methodology it codified — singeing the woman with a red hot iron to extract confessions, stripping her, shaving her body — does not really sound so medieval when considered in the context of contemporary Indian reality. Here, the common people’s continuing lack of access to the formal justice system in remote and not-so-remote areas means that any powerful person, starting from the local MP, the village headman, to an ojha (healer) or a quack, can mimic the voice of law to serve his interests, as the author of Malleus Maleficarum did. If in Birbhum in West Bengal, the kangaroo court led by the village morol allegedly sentenced the 20-year-old girl to a gang-rape because it had judged her guilty of indiscretion, in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, a 45-year-old widow was recently killed by two men who had been led to believe that she was a witch responsible for the death of their relatives. The places and the details of the crime differ but the victim is invariably a woman, usually from an impoverished background, whose fraught position in terms of gender, class and economy makes it easy for her community to eliminate her by giving her a convenient name — whether of a person of loose morals or of a witch.
Last December, the Odisha assembly passed the prevention of witch hunting bill, which states that anyone found guilty of engaging in witch-hunts shall be punished with imprisonment up to three years with a fine, which could extend up to seven years. As in most such cases of gender violence (the witch — dayan or dahani — is, by definition, a woman), the legislation, at least at this stage of its implementation, is more a symptom of the problem than a cure. At least four cases of witch-hunting have been reported from December till now — which does not speak much for change. But the hope for immediate transformation brought about by the law seems fanciful when one considers the social realities behind incidents of witch-hunting. Sashiprava Bindhani, the social activist whose PIL in the Orissa high court started the process which ended with the passing of the law, talks of the difficult road that remains to be travelled before the legislation achieves its aim.
The factors which usually led to women being branded as witches in medieval Europe still hold chillingly true for India. Undoubtedly, it is superstition which inspires people to see witches in women but this belief often has its roots in very practical issues, like those involving property disputes, political or caste affiliation and the denial of sexual favours. Bindhani states that cases of witch-hunting typically take place in marginalized rural communities that have little or no access to proper healthcare, education and the institutions of formal justice. The incident in Mayurbhanj referred to earlier took place in Kuaribil, which is among the most inaccessible regions within the Simlipal forest . The police could reach the village several hours after the murder took place because the reporting, done by the victim’s 12-year-old daughter, who was an eye-witness, involved a number of detours before it reached the police outpost in Gudgudia via the professional messenger of the forest, the dakua.
From Kuaribil, the nearest public health centre is 35-40 kilometres away — there is no public transport system connecting the village to the PHC. The local school has reportedly remained closed for six years because no teacher is willing to endure the isolation. Incidentally, Kuaribil is also known for the large number of infant deaths, which had attracted the attention of the human rights authorities in 2006-2007. The problem of inadequate healthcare, coupled with dire poverty, still persists and Bindhani talks of a pregnant woman who had swallowed three pills, meant to be taken separately after each meal in the course of the day, at one go because one meal a day is the utmost she could afford.
The prevalence of witches in Odisha is expectedly connected to this lack of health facilities, since a ‘witch’ is very likely to be a woman suffering from psychological ailments, which cause her to behave abnormally. While a young woman is likely to be labelled a witch if she is too smart, sassy or pretty, an elderly woman suffering from, say, epilepsy or dementia, is also an easy target. When families do not want to undertake the medical expenses of an aged, ailing relative, they throw her out. It becomes easier to drive her out of her home and property if the family members get social sanction for the act by branding her a witch.
The lacunae created by the insufficient State healthcare system are also the spaces where the witch-doctors, in their various avatars as gunias, ojhas or quacks, step in. People believe in them in the absence of better alternatives. In the bustling town of Lanjipalli in Berhampore, a man who had been suffering from ill health for quite some time suddenly suspected his wife of casting spells on him. Encouraged in his belief by the local gunia, the husband, aided by his parents and sisters, stuffed turd in his wife’s mouth, plucked out her teeth and drove her out. Pragya Paramita Jena, the inspector in charge of the mahila thana where the case was registered, says that people, irrespective of their education, have a deep-rooted belief in the power of the gunias. Mass awareness programmes are required to enlighten them. And most importantly, women need to know when they are being victimized so that they can report it to the police. The brisk, no-nonsense manner in which Jena waves away people’s faith in gunias by calling it blind superstition makes me want to trust the police for a change. She puts it clearly that if a woman is being abused in any way, she needs to come out and lodge a complaint instead of suffering silently by accepting it as her lot. The police are always ready to help, Jena underlines. In the case of the ailing husband, they locked him up as soon as the wife filed the case. Jena adds that not only the people but also the police need to know the law so that the latter can help.
Whenever we tried to question the people about gunias, we met with silence and shiftiness. But this may well be an encouraging sign. As Bindhani suggests, it may mean that people are now conscious of the fact that their belief in gunias is wrong-headed and so are trying to deny it. Indeed, the law can start having its effect only when people identify superstition for what it is, and the victim recognizes herself as one, identifies the abettor of the crime and lodges her complaint. As for the State, the responsibilities of registering the complaint, acting on it, and providing protection to the victim rest with it, not to speak of the larger duties of firming up the justice system and improving healthcare. The task is challenging no doubt, perhaps more so because it entails engagement with a society in transition; in the remote tribal areas, where sometimes there is no electricity, mobile phones coexist with dakuas and flashy motorbikes rake up the red earth while patients are carried on khatiyas to hospitals. Even in prosperous, urbanized localities, blind beliefs lurk like moles beneath the surface of educated manners.
Yet, armed with the law, it is not impossible to alter the people’s mindset, Bindhani says emphatically. I find myself wanting to believe in her, in spite of wary voices in the head. If this petite, unassuming lady could almost single-handedly bring about the legislation, she may well encourage people to have faith in it. The long voyage on choppy waters has just begun.