Sunday, Jun 04, 2023

Restoring The 'Garima' Of Women Branded Witches


Restoring The 'Garima' Of Women Branded Witches

Project Garima was launched in Jharkhand to restore the garima (dignity) of women branded witches. Outlook visits a few villages to see if it has been effective

Illustration: Chaitanya Rukumapur

These lines are from a nukkad natak (street play) performed by the members of a sakhi mandal (women’s group) in a remote village in Jharkhand’s Lohardaga district during an awareness campaign against witch hunting.

While speaking of witch hunts, one’s mind conjures up images of Europe in the Middle Ages or 17th-century Salem. However, the practice is still a living reality for hundreds of thousands of women and men in various parts of India even though laws against witch hunting are in place.

Launched in Jharkhand in April 2020, the Garima project aims to erase the malpractice of witch hunting in the state by March 2023 and restore the garima (dignity) of women who are branded “witches”.  As we inch closer to the deadline, Outlook visits a few remote villages in Jharkhand to know the present status of the project and understand how effective it has proved, considering the state is still reporting new cases of witch hunting every single day. According  to the National Crime Records Bureau  (NCRB) 2019 report, Jharkhand ranks third in witch hunting cases in India with an average of at least three women branded as dayans or ‘bisahis’ (witches) every day in some parts of the state.

Project Garima was launched by the central government at an estimated budget of Rs 15 crore with the objective of freeing Jharkhand from witch hunting and branding practices. The state government has been running the programme through the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS). The Garima project conducts awareness programmes, identifies survivors and victims, maps the vulnerability of witch hunt survivors and helps in making them independent.  In the first phase, the project aimed to cover 342 gram panchayats (village councils) covering up to 2,068 revenue villages in 25 blocks of seven districts of Jharkhand.

Purnima Mukherjee, the state programme manager (social development), JSLPS, says: “We help survivors by assisting them in meeting their requirements by telling them about different government schemes.” Sakhi mandals help in implementing project Garima through street plays. Though the project has achieved nominal success, it still accounts for the many success stories this initiative has managed to script at the local level. “Once, during our performance in a nearby village, two women broke down after watching our play. Later, they approached us and narrated their own tales of surviving witch hunts. Women find it easy to approach and trust us because we are an all-women’s group,” says Neelima Tigga, who leads one of the sakhi mandals.

Laws forbidding witch hunting are relatively new and, as experts rightly point out, most cases go unreported in both rural and urban areas. In 2001, the Prevention of Witch Practices Act came into effect in Jharkhand but it has done little to combat the increasing number of such incidents.

In her study, ‘To understand lived experience and cultural practices of witch hunting as a cover-up for an organised crime’, Akriti Lakra, a Jharkhand-based researcher and activist, observes that both witchcraft and the pursuit of witches have been historically viewed through the perspective of superstition. As the perpetrators come from within the community, there are no witnesses to the crime which results in such matters not being brought before a judge and are instead resolved outside the legal system. Lakra also points out that though witch hunting is often an organised crime, the term “organised crime” is never used to describe it. Moreover, those branded and denounced as witches do not always experience a mob trial, as is seen in many cases. Survivors are often labelled as witches by their family members, relatives, or close associates. Thus, there is no single perspective to look at witch hunting and understand the pattern of this regressive practice.

The Curious Case of ‘Male Witches’

Brijmohan Oraon, 77, a resident of Sukmar village in Jharkhand, plaintively says: “I don’t know what to do. They call me a bisaha (a male witch) and stopped talking to me.” Oraon has been labelled a witch by his neighbours, who are also his relatives. In 2009, his nephew branded him a bisaha and accused him of casting an evil eye on his family.

Those branded witches do not always experience a mob trial. Survivors are often labelled as witches by their family members or relatives.

“Every time an accident or an unpleasant incident happened in the family, I was blamed. I approached key persons in the village, following which a meeting was held in the presence of the sarpanch (village head) and villagers. A sulahnama (compromise) was signed,” he says. However, recently, his nephew, Jaighar Oraon, once again started branding him a witch. He approached the JSLPS Garima centre to register a case against the charges levelled against him and sought justice. After the paralegals at Garima intervened, a new sulahnama (compromise bond) was signed on January 30, 2023.

From a Child Bride to Dayan: The Story of a ‘Mad Woman’

“They drove me insane. I live like the way mad people live,” says Kunti Devi. Hailing from Phursi village in Hazaribaug district of Jharkhand, she was married off when she was 12 to Suresh Mahto, a resident of Gorbhu Toli village, which is in Lohardaga district. Kunti Devi was tormented for two decades. Though she survived the repeated physical attacks, the mental scars are permanent. A few years into their marriage, her in-laws asked her husband to remarry as their own daughter was now of marriageable age. To escape paying a dowry for the daughter, the in-laws wanted their son to go for a golat—a system of exchange marriage.  In 2009, Kunti Devi’s aunt -in-law’s son died and she was branded a witch. I stopped going out after people started calling me dayan (witch). Family members and neighbours would hurl abuses at me. I lost my sanity,” she says.

The couple eventually moved out. On October 8, 2011, she spoke to Saraswati Devi, the village mukhiya (head), following which a community-level meeting was called, which was attended by panchayat (council) representatives and villagers. A compromise was reached and a bond was signed. However, four years later, in 2016, her brother-in-law and his wife once again branded her a dayan. With the help of JSLPS paralegals, a new compromise was signed in the end of January this year. However, in February first week, her brother-in-law barged into her house in the absence of her husband and tore it apart.  When asked why she never sought any legal help, she says:  “The thana (police station) people don’t listen to us. They always take the side of the rich and the powerful. These laws are not for us.”

The Vicious Cycle

Do these sulahnamas help in restoring the dignity of witch hunt survivors? Mukherjee says the most common vested interests seen in the cases of witch hunting include land grabbing, sexual violence, family feud or revenge. Speaking to Outlook, Lakra says: “Most instances of witch hunts can be traced back to regions with low levels of educational attainment, slight or non-existent economic growth and limited or non-existent access to medical treatment.” When Outlook visited some of the villages, this was quite evident. For most villages, quality healthcare and education are a distant dream. The absence of education and healthcare allows concepts like superstition and patriarchy to flourish.

Even as project Garima nears the end of its first phase, there are many who don’t know about it. “What is the Garima project? I have never heard of it. It never reached our locality,” says Peiro Devi of Angada, who lives around 60 km away from the capital city of Ranchi.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Predators Among Us")