By Gladson Dungdung
September – October 2004
It was a horrible night for Somri Hansda a sixty-year-old widow and Vahamay Kiskoo (40) of Mahuwasol village of Godda district in Jharkhand. They were killed by their own people… even Vahamay Kiskoo’s husband Parchana Tuddu had done nothing except filing a FIR. That night the villagers were happy because they had punished the ‘Dayans’ (witches). Instead of hue or cry the villagers applauded and danced till the two women (witches) breathed their last and their bodies were consigned to flames. It is the end of imagination. It is unbelievable and horrible. It is not a film script or fiction, not even a story from textbooks. It is a real life story of two Adivasi women. Adivasi women face such heinous forms of violence in each and every walk of their lives in their societies.
The miserable deaths of Somri Hansda and Vahamay Kiskoo began with villager Anant Tuddu’s suffering, from fever, headache and dysentery. Anant’s nine-year-old daughter, Sukhni dreamt that Vahamay and Somri were eating her father’s ‘Kaleja’ (heart). Sukhni narrated the dream to the villagers. The villagers called a meeting of the Panchayat on the night of 1st July 2003, which was attended by 250 people. Vahamay and Somri were dragged out of their homes and produced before the Panchayat. Murli Soren and Mahadev Tuddu acting as the ‘Panchs’ pronounced them witches. Consequently, the women were beaten to death by a group of 60 villagers and burnt down to ashes.
Witch-hunting is an endless saga of Adivasi women. Witch-hunting is not today’s phenomenon. Govind Kelkar and Dev Nathan have mentioned about the origin of witch-hunting in their book “Gender and Tribe”. According to a Santhal myth the origin of witchcraft starts with the struggle between sexes within the family and Santhal society as a whole. One day the Santhal men, held an assembly and began thinking that they were men, and still they were disobeyed. They also thought that it was high time they did something about it. They decided to visit Maran Buru and learn an art so that the women would respect them and not disobey them. At midnight they assembled in the forest again and called out to Maran Buru. ‘Grandfather, they said, ‘we are so harassed and have come to seek help from you.’ Maran Buru appeared and asked them the reason for their visit. The men told him of their troubles and requested him to teach them how to keep their womenfolk under control.
The women got to know of the meeting between Maran Buru and their menfolk. The women tricked the men into drinking country made liquor and then disguised themselves as men and met Maran Buru. Maran Buru granted them power to eat men. Thus women became witches. The next day when the men came to Maran Buru, he realized that the women had tricked him. He then made the men “experts in the art of witch hunting”(1991: 97).
Witch-hunting was inherently shaped in Adivasi communities through tradition and culture. It is a curse in the Adivasi societies, where women are assaulted, beaten up, heads tonsured, murdered, dragged into public places, faces painted black, forcefully paraded naked in public meetings and raped in the name of they being witches. The peculiar thing about the violence is that, most victims are widows, aged women and mainly women who are closely related to the accusers. Witch-hunting is one of the most brutal forms of violence against Adivasi women. Witch-hunting is a frightening phenomenon, which is on the increase in recent years in Adivasi dominated villages in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Witch hunting is common among the Santhal, Munda, Oraon and Kharia Adivasis. Jharkhand is the worst affected state with witch hunting cases, holding police records of 517 Adivasi women being killed in 10 districts in the past decade. Among them 124 women were killed in Ranchi alone, 109 in West Singhbhum, 104 in Lohardaga, 89 in Gumla, 38 in Palamu, 17 in Garhwa, 15 in Hazaribagh, 10 in East Singhbhum, 8 in Kodarma and 3 in Dhanbad. Andhra Pradesh ranks second in position with 147 cases of witch killing in 1999-2000. In Assam, 200 murder cases were filed for witch hunting. 5 cases of witch killing were filed in Bihar in 2001. There were several cases of witch-hunting, which were never brought to the attention of police because women are not aware about their rights and lack social security.
Various studies show that the victims of witch hunting are mainly old and unprotected women. A study in Malda District of West Bengal states that 95 cases were filed in the Police station during 1950-80 in which Santals killed Santals. Out of these, 46 cases could be determined, as witch-killings and 42 out of the 46 cases happened to be of women. Similarly, in 1982, 10 women were victims of witch hunting in 12 incidents. Among the victims, most of them were widowed and aged. The significant aspect is the lack of protection or coverage from powerful relations. ‘A study of witches among the Santhals in the Daurs (West Bengal) shows that the victims were mainly women who were closely related to the accusers’ (Kelker & Nathan, 1991: 94).
There are some significant reasons of witch hunting which are deeply rooted in Adivasi communities. Belief in ghosts, spirits and witches is inherent in Adivasi societies, which has taken shape in the form of tradition and culture. There is lack of Government health facilities. The health centres and sub-centres are 5 to 10 kilometres away from the villages, the ANMs and health workers are absent and also that there are no alternatives health care facilities for the Adivasis except to approach Baidhs (traditional village physicians) or Ojhas (spirit healer) for medical treatment.
There are no specific laws for prohibition, and to probe cases where witch-hunting is rampant. Bihar and Jharkhand are the only two states which have the “Witchcraft Prohibition Ordinance, 1999” but, this Ordinance also comes with a package of drawbacks. For instance, under the ‘Witchcraft Prohibition Ordinance, 1999’, the punishment for witch killing is nominal. A person who commits such a heinous crime would be punished merely with imprisonment for six months and or a fine of upto Rs. 2000. The law has failed to make an impact on culprits in the states.
The Property right of women is another major clause. The Santhal is the only Adivasi community, which awards property rights even to widows. The right is absent among other Adivasi societies. Among the Mundas this has more or less been reduced to a maintenance right. While among the Oraons property rights can hardly be traced. As far as witches are concerned, it is among the Santhals that witches are exclusively women, while among the Mundas, Hos and Oraons, a witch can be either a woman or a man, although they are usually women. Former vice-chancellor of Ranchi University, Dr. Ram Dayal Munda, says that there is an ‘economics’ to witch-hunting. An economics related to the destruction of the traditional land rights of Adivasi women.
The root cause is the patriarchal system. To establish the authority of men, they suppress women, who resist the system. Men use weapons like witch-hunting to get rid of women they fear. In the Adivasi communities, it is largely women who are considered to have an evil influence and thus capable of being witches. But, why is it that only a woman is a witch and man a witch hunter and spirit healer? Why aren’t there some common social concerns of only widows and old women being witches? Why is it that there is no social common consensus about hospitals being worthless and the dysfunctioning of the Primary Health Centres? The greed for property and depriving women of traditional property rights is a sidelined fact. Illiteracy, poor educational levels and superstitious beliefs are reasons fit enough to be icing on the cake. Prohibition of the practice of witchcraft and the abolition of witch hunting or rather woman hunting should be the aim of any Government committed to democracy.