Recently, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has asked for comprehensive reports on witchcraft and sorcery related tortures and deaths from the Chief Secretary and DGP, Odisha.
The NHRC shows serious concern on the implementation of the Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act, 2013 and Odisha Government’s action plan to curb witch hunting.Odisha accounts for the second-highest number of deaths due to witch-hunting after Jharkhand, as stated by the NCRB.
Further, the Orissa High Court said that more than 2,500 victims were tortured and killed in witch hunts between 2000 and 2016 by referring to the NCRB records. The Odisha Rationalistic Society claims that in Odisha 70 witch craft related deaths are being reported every year since 2008. Some other sources claim that average sorcery death is 48 in Odisha every year.
It is reported that districts like Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Sundargarh, Rayagada, Malkangiri, Gajapati and Nuapada account for nearly 83 percent of the sorcery cases. Further, some news agencies reveal that two coastal districts like Ganjam and Baleswar are increasingly getting the dubious distinction for reporting cases of witch hunting.Witchcraft or sorcery deaths occur in two ways.
The first one is killing humans in the name of human sacrifice to appease god. This killing varies from personal to community interest. “Meria Bali” is a form of practice where people used to purchase human beings from market for sacrifice.
Second one is a very widespread practice. In this form, humans are being killed on the suspicions of witch or practising black magic. Attributes of witches can be described as possession of supernatural power, fearful, destructive and negative. Such attributions draw upon what may be treated as superstition but it does not necessarily arrive from superstitions. In many cases there are personal and socio-economic causes which help to label a person as witch. It is reported that Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh are the States reporting more witch related deaths. A report based on these States show that the target group for witch hunting is women. A studyfurther reveals that women account for 90% of cases compared to 10% of cases of male where persons are branded as witches and performing black magic. A witch is just a social paraphrase to intimidate women. It is an insular form of gender violence and haughty form of male suppression.
The women within the age group of 50-60 years are mostly vulnerable to be accused as witches. It is established that in maximum cases only widows were targeted. Married women particularly elderly married women are also subjected to being labelled as witches.
Apart from these, isolated and deprived women, lone parents, mentally distorted persons, arrogant and stubborn women and lone family belonging to a particular caste or community leaving among majority are prone to be stigmatized as witch or the victims of witch hunting. The history of witches and witchcraft is unknown. But the anthropological records reveal that ‘Daini’ as a term was a common phenomenon in last several centuries. The modern time has changed the gender of witch. Male members are also alleged as witches. In many parts of India, the male witches are called as ‘Tohna.’ Recently, a
father and his son were lynched to death by the villagers in Gajapati district on the suspicion of practising black magic or sorcery. As far as group identity for witches is concerned, women or men from backward castes are denounced as witches. Economy plays a key role in the process of demonizing rural and tribal women.
Accusation of land is one of the causes which instigate this attack on women in the name of witch hunting. In a case study, it is found that if someone has fallen sick or community well has dried or cholera spread or infants died in a village then the cause of the incidents is directly related to the act of witches.
Many other causeslike illiteracy, inequality, poverty, land rights, property disputes, weak health care facilities and intolerance are associated with witch hunting. Additionally, the role of witch –doctor or ‘Ojha’ plays a pivotal role in this heinous crime.The extreme form of punishment for the witch accused is death. Death by pelting stone, throwing into fire or death by upward down swinging. There are many instances showing that apart from the victims, their family members are also targeted. Many tribal societies in Odisha
practise the physical form of violence like chopping of the breast, teeth broken, head tonsured, parading naked and canning publicly. There are other humiliating acts like swallowing urine, eating human pews, eating human flesh and drinking the blood of chicken. Gang rape and molestation are also done during the practice of punishment.
These are human rights issues because the identity and reputation as a human being is at a stake during this punishment. The trails of witch hunting are divided into two types such as (a) calculated and (b) random. In calculated witch hunting the identification of victims is pre-designed. There must be a plan and itconsists of rumours, false accusation and false narratives.
This calculated witch hunting is done to acquire land or to get any economic benefits. Random witch hunting is not previously planned. Fake news, rumours and gossiping instigate the mob to act violently all of a sudden. The perpetrators are known to the victims. In maximum cases, the perpetrators are relatives or neighbours. Professor Jay Corzine of homicide studies believes “Culture as a Tool Kit” for explaining homicide. Sub-culture offers cultural scripts for homicide.
Same thing happens in case of witch hunting. A particular community or people adopt a story and narrative against the accused and kill the accused. In Keonjhar, a memorial for witch hunt victims was built by the Odisha police in 2019 to sensitise people. So community must be sensitised and stringent action plans to curb this social evil be implemented. Collective responsibilities, local
leadership, scientific temperament and awareness should be promoted to curb the witch hunt crimes. Further, these must be followed by social security.
It is a social melancholy that on basis of accusations and superstitions, people kill people. Many innocent lives land into a horrific end either on suspicion of being a ‘witch’ or practising ‘witchcraft. Mahatma Gandhi had said ‘we cannot be empowered unless and until we free our self from the slavery; that is slavery ofsuperstitions.’