If somebody asked me, ‘Who are the witches?’ I would be the last person to define or categorise them. Around 20 years ago, when I started to study witch-hunting among Ho Adivasis in Singhbhum district, I started with many assumptions. One of them was: only women could be considered as witches and targeted. The second assumption was that there would always be a ‘property angle’ to the murders. The common perception was that elderly women, especially widows, were marked as witches and done away with by their own relatives in order to grab their land. But my study revealed that among the Hos, not only women but men were also targeted and killed in the name of witchcraft, though in sheer number, it is women more than men.
I conducted my study from 1998 to 2000. In the years immediately preceding this period, several incidents of witch killings, often involving whole families were reported from West Singhbhum. I was part of a human rights organisation called Johar and these incidents were deeply disturbing to us. We decided to go deep into society’s psyche to understand the reasons behind such a brutal practice. We undertook around 15 case studies where we spoke to the family members of the victims and other villagers to recognise patterns that might help us understand the issue better. Our study came up with two major conclusions. First, it is a deep-rooted belief in the minds of Adivasi people that witches exist and that they upset the balance of life. Second, the immediate causes of accusations of being a witch and the violence that follows are always health-related.
As I said in the beginning, it is difficult to ascertain who the women are who are branded witches by the community. I remember a young couple who were hard-working and industrious with ambitions for their family. The woman’s brother-in-law attacked her and tried to kill her, accusing her of being a witch. In this case, the woman stood out from the rest of the community in harbouring dreams for a better future. In another case, a family of seven members who were similarly better off than the others, were targeted and five members of the family brutally killed. The elder daughter, who narrowly escaped death, recounted how she was repeatedly raped by men whom she used to address as brothers. Nevertheless, it is difficult to classify the victims into any one specific category or box.
There are also men who get branded as witches. These are normally men who are healers whom people perceive to possess extraordinary powers. In one of the case studies in West Singhbhum that we took up, an old man, a practitioner of herbal medicine, was murdered brutally by four young boys from the same village. His two wives were also killed along with him. The family members of the people marked as witches become collateral damage.
A major realisation that made me think deeper about witch-hunting was its embeddedness in human cosmology. When people do not have rational solutions to the uncertainties of life, they resort to the belief that ‘evil forces’ were behind them. Villagers did not know how illnesses were caused. Whenever anything bad happened to them, they would tend to hold some ‘evil forces’ accountable. I remember the case of a man who had had an ulcerated wound on his leg that kept worsening. He believed that an invisible arrow sent by an enemy had caused the wound, Therefore, instead of going to a doctor, he continued doing pujas (rituals). As I studied their cosmology, I understood that this was part of their belief system. This faith in outside forces is so ingrained that no rational solution seems to suffice.
Due to this belief, the identifiers of ‘evil forces’ become significant in the villages. These are people known as deowas, ojhas, or bhagats who take advantage of the situation. They have access to the traditional healing systems of the Adivasis and they used to be trained in the village akharas to deal with illnesses and diseases, using herbal medicines as well as prayers and chants. In Adivasi cosmology, illnesses are caused either when the spirits are displeased or angry or when the person is targeted by a witch.
These healers, which include men and women, are trained to find out who are actually responsible for the ailments: bad spirits, ancestral spirits or witches. Above the deowas, ojhas, gunis etc, are the shokas who claim to have the power to find and tame the witches.
The belief in the existence of witches, who have supernatural powers of destruction, is an age-old belief not only among Adivasis but most communities in the region. Adivasis also believe that only by annihilating the witch amidst them can their community remain safe and healthy. Our study shows that incidents of witch killings are often caused by the lack of basic healthcare facilities and access to them. Lack of awareness and knowledge of the real causes of ill-health among common people are abetting factors. During my study, I realised that people didn’t even know that malaria was caused by mosquito bites. To cure malaria, they would often do jhad phuk (rituals) or pujas (prayers) to appease spirits.
There are no hospitals or other health facilities in the area, either in the government or private sectors. So, villagers often go to medical shops and if those fail, they approach quacks. Against this backdrop, making proper medical facilities accessible to people seems to be one way of combating this ruthless practice. Change will happen with people’s beliefs and practices changing but it will take time. When the National Rural Health Mission was started in 2004, one of the focus areas was reducing maternal mortality through promoting institutional deliveries. At the time, we were all apprehensive of how it would turn out. It took several years of work through incentivisation, providing support systems in villages, awareness-raising, etc. Today, I think, almost 50 percent of deliveries are happening in hospitals across Jharkhand.
Still, there is a long way to go. The National Health Profile of 2018 says only 4.82 percent of state expenditure is utilised in healthcare. Whereas in India, 11,082 people, on an average, have at least one allopathic doctor, in Jharkhand, the number stands at 18,518. In the state, only one hospital bed is available for 3,079 people, whereas for India the number is 1,844. According to the National Health Survey of 2015-2016, Jharkhand had 61.9 percent institutional births, far below the national average of 78.9 percent.
In my opinion, only concerted work to develop adequate and accessible medical infrastructure, together with a proper campaign to raise awareness of people conscious about health, nutrition and disease will be able to decimate the practice of witch hunting and killing. Only then will the superpowers of witches not be considered responsible for causing ailments. What we need is the spread of rationality and the realisation that we are healed by medicines and scientific treatment.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Medical Vaccuum")
(As told to Abhik Bhattacharya)
Ajitha Susan George has been working in Jharkhand since 1992 and co-founded Omon Mahila Sanghatan to help women branded as witches