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Religion No Bar: Women Branded Witches Everywhere

The superstitions of daain/bisahi, black magic, and ojha-guni (shamanism) are not just limited to the Adivasi and Hindu communities, but also have strong roots among Muslims and Christianity.

Phoolbani, a victim of witch hunting
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Nikhat Kausar, (name changed) 33, says that her belief in daain/bisahi (witches) is dwindling as she grows older, but at one point she strongly believed in witchcraft, as a result of fears stokes by her neighbours and family.

Kausar first learned about the concept of daain/bisahi concept in her village at the age of 14. "I clearly remember an old woman in our village called Ajmeri (name changed), who was considered a witch by the villagers," she tells Outlook. Around the same time, her brother and she fell sick, with their health not improving despite receiving treatment. "One eventful day the old lady came to our house. My mother was terrified. She (Ajmeri) approached us as we lay down, touched our feet, and said Beti (daughter), you will get cured."A few days later, both siblings recovered. It has now been eight years of Ajmeri's death.

The narrative dates back two decades to Kausar's paternal place, a village of the Kanke block in the Ranchi district. She recalls that the rumor about Ajmeri being a daain spread like wildfire in all village households when her husband fell sick. “Her husband was taken to the doctor, but he was not recovering. Then on people’s advice, he was taken to a maulana (Muslim cleric)," Kausar narrates. Everybody got off the car Ajmeri's husband was taken in, but the old woman had not stepped out. The maulana at this point declared that the one who is sitting in the car is the khabbis (daain). He said, "bring her to me, she has a black tongue." Ajmeri was forcefully brought to the maulana, and her tongue was found to be black, a version of events narrated to Nikhat by her grandmother. Today, personally Nikhat does not believe in the existence of daain/bisahi.

The superstitions of daain/bisahi, black magic, ojha-guni (shamanism), and similar practices are not just limited to the Adivasi and Hindu communities, but also have strong roots among Muslims. In Jharkhand, just like Ajmeri, there exist the examples of Rubina Bibi and Naseeban Bibi (names changed), from villages in the Simdega and Latehar districts respectively, who were accused of being daains and were harassed. Across the country, the number of Muslim women accused of witchcraft, and subjected to violence and ill-treatment is in hundreds.

According to the government and non-government organizations, shamans, or traditional healers (ojha-guni) play a key role in the abuse of women in the name of witchcraft, as it is they who decide who is to be declared a daain or performer of black magic.

Senior journalist Shamsuddin Ahmed on the issue says, “The Muslim community cannot be considered immune to this problem. In Muslims, the concept of shamanic healing has come from khankahs (monastic institutions). Black magic superstitions and the belief in daain/bisahi are widespread among the Muslim populations of Bengal and Assam, where these social ills stem from a lack of education." Ahmed adds that now one can find them in almost every part of the country. The Muslim clerics involved in healing practices do it in the name of religion, earning both money and social stature through it. Many of them use it as a tool to abuse women. "I believe this happens due to a lack of worldly and religious education among Muslim women, depriving them of the ability to correctly judge people. This is why it is mainly Muslim women who believe in witchcraft,” he observes.

Ahmed says that Muslim women are often confined within the walls of their houses and deprived of education. Had they been given the same educational opportunities, they would rise above these beliefs. Even though many pseudo-religious businesses are prospering through daain/bisahi, ojha-guni, and healing, he says that they actually have nothing to do with the religion (Islam).

However, Muslim clerics hold a different view on this. They claim that the existence of witchcraft is backed by religious texts. Maulana Mohammad Jalaluddin Qadri says: “Our understanding of daain/bisahi is different than those of non-Muslims. For us, the djinns (spirits as per Islamic belief) are an entity just like humans, and this has been laid down in the Quran, they exist according to Islam. Witchcraft is used for causing harm. Of course, you can call it daain/bisahi in your language."

Though those who declare that a particular woman has performed black magic, or she is the witch, it is up to them to explain how they found out, Qadri explains. "I believe that less than one in five (healers) are actually able to figure this out, while the rest just do guesswork.”

He further adds “Some Muslim women learn witchcraft and perform it against others. You would often hear that a woman said something, which turned out to be true. This means she has learned something, she is a witch.”

Similar beliefs also prevail among Christians. Mary Lakra of Simdega and Christina Ade of Khunti (names changed) have been harassed in the name of witchcraft and continue to face the stigma.

One wonders, why does this superstition prevail among the Christians when the missionaries have worked so hard to spread education among the Adivasis in Jharkhand.

Ranchi’s Catholic Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas admits that these ills are also present among Christians but to a lesser extent. And it is not just the Church’s duty to end witch-hunts, it falls upon the entire society. The roots of witch-hunting are so deep in Jharkhand that they have become ingrained in its culture. Many evils cannot be ended in a generation, and even after (the spread of) education, they can take years to disappear. Moreover, in the parts of Jharkhand where incidents of witch-hunts take place, the levels of education are not too high. Witch-hunting can never be supported. It is a mob mentality to kill someone over something. Some beliefs are very deep among adivasis. "The missionaries try very hard to bring the community out of these, but it is very difficult and can only be achieved by working gradually over a long period," he adds.

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Do ghosts and evil spirits exist within Catholicism? The bishop answers: “Just like Islam has Satan, Hinduism has Ravana, Christianity also has the concept of the Devil. If they were not there, the world would not have any evil. However, Christianity fights evil with love."

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