In the name of witch hunting

By Gladson Dungdung

21 March, 2009

At the beginning of 2009, one more Adivasi woman was killed in the name of witch-hunting in Jharkhand. 45 year old Sukhmani Barla of Arhara village of Kamdara block near Ranchi was chopped by her neighbour Bagda Munda alleging her of being a witch. Bagda Munda’s daughter Saniya Munda had been suffering from illness for last three years and finally she died on January 2. When Bagda Munda approached the Ojha (spirit healer) to know the reason of death, the Ojha informed him that his neighbour Sukhmani Munda has killed his daughter with her black magic. Finally, Bagda Munda chopped her with an axe and was thrown behind the bars for committing a heinous crime but he is not ashamed of his act.

The witch hunting is common among the Santhal, Ho, Munda, Oraon and Kharia Adivasis. Witch-hunting is a frightening phenomenon, which is on the increase in recent years in Adivasi dominated villages in the states of Jharkhand, holding police records of 984 women being killed in 19 districts since 1991 to 2008. Among them 242 women were killed in Ranchi district, 178 in West Singhbhum, 60 in East Singhbhum, 34 in Saraikela-Kharsawan, 127 in Lohardaga, 100 in Gumla, 39 in Simdega, 60 in Palamu, 18 in Garhwa, 10 in Chatra, 15 in Hazaribagh, 16 in Koderma, 15 in Giridih, 6 in Dhanbad, 12 in Bokaro, 16 in Deoghar, 11 in Dumka, 14 in Sahebganj and 11 women were killed in Godda district respectively.

The witch-hunting is inherently shaped in Adivasi communities through tradition and culture. It is a curse for the Adivasis, where women are assaulted, heads tonsured, murdered, dragged into public places and faces painted in public meetings in the name of them being witches. The peculiar thing about the violence is that, the most victims are widows, aged women and mainly women who are unprotected and closely related to the accusers. Witch-hunting is one of the most brutal forms of violence against women.

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 society, 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 kilometers 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 Baidh (traditional village physicians) or Ojha (spirit healer) for medical treatment.

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 communities. Among the Mundas and Kharia Adivasis, 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, Oraons and Kharias; a witch can be either a woman or a man, although they are usually women. According to the former vice-chancellor of Ranchi University, Dr. Ram Dayal Munda, there is an ‘economics’ to witch-hunting, which is related to the destruction of the traditional land rights of Adivasi women.

There is a specific law “the prevention of witch practices Act (2001) but this ordinance also comes with a package of drawbacks as the punishment for witch killing is nominal. According to the sections 3, 4, 5 & 6 of the Act, a person who identifies witches can be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend 3 months or with fine of Rs. 1000. Any person who commits such heinous crime would be punished merely with imprisonment for 6 month or with fine of Rs. 2000 or both. The same punishment is applicable to the Ojha (spirit healer). The law has failed to make any impact on culprits in the state as it is seldom practiced.

Though the Adivasi women enjoy more autonomy and privileges than the non-Adivasi women in the society but the root cause of witch hunting is the patriarchal system. To establish the authority of men, they suppress women, who resist against 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. The fundamental question is 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, unprotected and old women being witches? Why is it that there is no social common consensus about hospitals being worthless and the dysfunctional of the public health system?

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. Witch hunting is a serious violation of human right of women. Prohibition of the practice of witchcraft and the abolition of witch hunting should be one of the aims of any government committed to human rights and social justice.

Gladson Dungdung is a Human Rights Activist and Writer based at Ranchi. He can be contacted at

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