State Editions

Keonjhar district hotbed of sorcery killings

| | in Bhubaneswar

Gate Munda (30) and her husband Pandu Munda were living a happy life with their four children, till the fateful day ruined their life. The couple, Gate and Pandu, belongs to KalhoHundula village in Keonjhar district, where branding and killing woman as practicing witchcraft is still high according to the cases registered under Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act.

Both Gate and Pandu, the young parents of four children, were murdered and their 11-year-old daughter was gang-raped. When she became unconscious, the accused left her and fled.

Pandu worked as a labourer in mines and also had a small piece of arable land where he grew paddy. His wife Gate was also worked as a wage labourer. They had a homestead land where they were growing vegetables that was sufficient for family consumption. But, neighbor Nidhi Munda had a regular argument with the couple over boundary of their homestead land.

According to Sunamani Munda, ward member of KalhoHundula village, population of hundred families mostly belongs to Munda, Majhi and Gond tribes. But, Nidhi Munda was suspecting Gate as a ‘witch’ and she planted a black magic on his house. He discussed this issue with other members of the village and created a wrong impression on Gate as practicing witchcraft. He also cited that therefore his daughter-in-law’s fever was not receding. He then called a witch hunter, who performed puja and said someone has planted black magic on their house. Nidhi’s wife moved all over the village with a coconut in hand and then she dumped it in front of Pandu’s house, the witch hunter then declared Gate as a ‘witch’.  And, since then all the hell broke loose. Within a few minutes everything changed for Gate and Pandu.

First Nidhi and his son Upendra dragged them out of their house, and then others joined them. They severely beat the young couple and then killed. They also beat the children and not satisfied with this act, they also dragged their 11- year- old daughter and raped her. The next day morning Nidhi went to the ward member’s house and said there is no need of Gram Sabha where the old land dispute between the two families was to be discussed. Then the ward member along with other villagers searched and found the bodies of Gate and Pandu. They also found the girl in a serious condition. Later, a case was registered against the three accused. The district administration sent four siblings to an orphanage at Trilokepur in the same district.

The ward member admitted belief in witchcraft is deep-rooted among the villagers and no step has been taken to create awareness among the people against this superstition. However, the homestead land for which entire incident happen remains abandoned.

In Odisha, every year a good numbers of women are killed in the name of superstition and black magic. Witch hunting casualties are on the rise across the State as 56 persons were killed in 2010, 72 persons in 2011 and 24 persons in 2012. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Odisha saw 177 murders for witchcraft during the period from 2008-2013. Seeing the rise in cases, the Odisha Government brought the “Prevention of Witch Hunting Act 2013” in December 2013, which became enforceable in February 2014.

The Act defines that witch-hunting means any act of omission, commission or conduct on the part of any person (i) identifying, accusing or defaming a woman as a witch or (ii) harassing, harming or injuring such woman whether mentally or physically or damaging her property. Committing witch hunting or abetting or provoking for witch hunting is punishable with imprisonment for a term that may be extended to 3 years or with fine but it is not less than Rs 1,000 or with both. Forcing any woman, branding her as witch to drink or eat any inedible substance or any other obnoxious substance or parade her with painted face or body or committing any similar acts that is derogatory to human dignity or displaced from her house, is punishable with imprisonment for a term that is not less than one year but that may be extended to five years and with fine.

In 2014, while only two cases were registered under this Act, it went up to 58 in 2015 and 83 in 2016 and 58 till June this year.  Nearly 75 per cent of the total cases have been registered in districts like Keonjhar, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Mayurbhanj and Koraput. Over the years, Keonjhar district continues to be a hot bed of witchcraft.

In Odisha, women, single women, women belonging to Dalits, tribals and other backward communities bear the brunt of the exploitation and become victims of witch hunting. In most of cases, the reason of branding a woman is dispossessing her ownership over property, dispute regarding livelihood and sexual motive. “Miscreants use social superstitions by branding woman to uproot entire family from the village and later to easily grab their land. In remote villages where most of the people are illiterate this belief system or superstition helps to disinherit women from family property,” says KalpanaMohapatra, an activist who has been working on this issue for a long time.

A civil society coalition called Girls Count is seeking to address the issue by promoting women’s economic empowerment. The Girls Count believes that focus on issues related to asset ownership of women and girls could be one of the keys to enhance their value and address violence and discrimination against them. With support from UNFPA, the Girls Count has started a campaign titled Her Share to enhance asset ownership for women and girls.

Starting a discourse around discriminatory laws, policies and practices such as witch hunting, which are used to dispossess women of assets, be it land or housing, the campaign seeks to motivate diverse groups and individuals to collectively raise a voice on the issue and support women and girls’ equal share in inheritance.  Besides, the Girls Count believes in making investments in women’s ability to earn and build their own assets and ultimately controlling these resources which can make them self-reliant and independent. 



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