The Deep Roots Of Misogyny

Violence against, and the murder of, women deemed witches is a regular part of life in various parts of India. What will change this?

The Deep Roots Of Misogyny

“Tune mara Maniaro ke pati ko?
Bol Chudail!”
(Did you kill Manioaro’s husband?
Tell us, witch!)

Holo Devi, 65, was found in a sack at the foothill of Dhardhariya pahad (hill)—located between the Lohardaga and Gumla districts of Jharkhand—on June 10, 2022, brutally murdered. The previous day, the widow and a mother of two, a resident of Ganeshpur village, 170 km from the state capital Ranchi, was mercilessly dragged and beaten after she was held responsible for the death of the husband of Maniaro Devi, a woman living in the same village. The region is populated by Kharwar Adivasis, classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). People here still attribute any death, natural or accidental, to witchcraft.

It was the pahan (chief priest of the village) who alleged that Holo Devi’s sorcery led to the death of Maniaro’s husband and branded her a dayan (witch). On the morning of June 9, the villagers, with drums and dhols, gathered at the centre of the village. They summoned the old and frail woman. “Tune mara Maniaro ke pati ko? Bol Chudail!” (Did you kill Manioaro’s husband? Tell us witch!), they demanded. The meek, old woman with visible stretch marks on her skin, screamed “Nahin mara” (I didn’t kill). They started hitting her with sticks. After half an hour, when the arms that bore the sticks were tired, a bruised and battered Holo Devi pleaded for some food. She was forced to eat pesticide instead. She started vomiting and, within minutes, lost her senses. The villagers put Holo Devi, still breathing, into a sack, carried her to the top of Dhardharia hill and threw her from the hilltop.

Nobody heard her screams. The voices of women branded as witches are seldom heard and hence ghastly violence against them in the name of witchcraft has continued unabated over centuries, across the world.

“It is, in some way or the other, a part of human cosmology. People always search for evil as an alibi to justify their own loss,” says Ajitha George, a scholar and activist who has been raising her voice against witch hunting for several years.  She hails from Jharkhand, home to many Holo Devis.

Headlines like ‘Woman branded as witch, burnt alive” or “Woman forced to eat excreta, paraded naked” are common in Jharkhand, as well in other parts of the country. Most of these stories don’t make it to the mainstream media. But data on witch hunting show that this is a consistent under-the-radar part of a genocidal culture against women.

ID Cards illustrated by Chaitanya Rukumapur

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that between 2018 and 2021, 310 people had been killed across the country for allegedly practicing witch craft. However, Jharkhand is not far behind. As per the citation of Odisha High Court, between 2000 and 2016, around 2,500 women had been murdered as witches in the state. In the Jharkhand police records, the number of people killed in the name of witchery from 2015-2022 stands at 277. In the last 23 years, since the formation of the state, at least 1,050 people have been murdered after being branded witches. The number of NCRB cases of violence against women in the state stood at 6,568 in 2015. In 2021, the number was 8,110.

The centrally-funded Garima project, which is run by the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) in the state, aimed to erase the malpractice of witch hunting by March 2023. But the situation on the ground is quite different. Poor, helpless, and vulnerable women like Holo Devi continue to be branded as witches every single day.

“This is not blind-faith, rather this is faith”

Twenty-two years after the adoption of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act in Jharkhand, calling somebody a dayan still does not constitute a crime in many villages in the state. “In several cases, women are branded witches and are beaten and humiliated by the family. Even if a report is filed with the police, the culprits are booked under domestic violence laws. Unless someone is killed following her being branded as a witch, they are not given a separate column,” says Sailesh Podder, a Jharkhand-based high court lawyer.

The story is not limited to Jharkhand. The NCRB data shows similar instances have been reported in Chhattisgarh, Assam, Bihar, Rajasthan and Odisha. Though seven states now have laws to prevent witch hunting, centrally there is no legal mechanism to curb it. In 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament (MP) Raghav Lakhanpal introduced the Prevention of Witch-hunting Bill in Parliament, but it did not manage to sustain further consideration.

However, the question remains, can the law actually be effective in preventing the evil practice? What are the different dimensions of it? Is it historically embedded among different communities, including Adivasis, or it was adopted from other communities in later periods? “While the exploration of gender and property angle behind demarcating witches appears in newspaper reports, systematic research is missing,” says S Bosu Mullick, a Jharkhand-based scholar. “This is not blind faith, rather this is faith,” he adds.   
Most of the branded witches are reportedly women and we have to answer why.

The Gender Struggle

I have cut the plantain grove 
I have taken off my clothes 
I have learnt from my mother-in-law 
How to eat my husband 
On the hills the wind blows 
I have cut the thatching grass 
Weary of eating rice.

This Santhal song is believed to be a soliloquy of the witches. The very description of the witch as a naked woman who has learned how to eat her husband from her mother-in-law metaphorically portrays both the demonisation and the defiance of the woman. This witch song was among those collected by the British and reproduced by W.G Archer in his book The Hill of Flutes: Life, Love and Poetry in Tribal India: A Portrait of the Santhals.


“How many men have you seen being victimised as witches? Mostly widows or single women with property holdings are branded witches and victimised,” says Purnima Banerjee, one of the senior managers of project Garima, which is run by the JSLPS in Jharkhand. The attacks are mostly perpetrated on widows or women who don’t have any male member in the family for ‘protection’.

Though seven states now have laws to prevent witch hunting, centrally there is no legal mechanism to curb it. However, the question remains: can the law actually be effective in preventing the evil practice?

“My mother was branded a witch and we were forced to leave our village. My father is a migrant worker. He was in Mumbai when they tried to take over our land,” says twenty-seven-year old Nupur Devi (name changed) who lives in a village in Palamu district of Jharkhand.


Her mother was branded a witch after she allegedly denied sexual favours to one of the powerful men of their village. “They always think single women can be easily exploited. I was then 16, about to be married. They dragged my mother outside our house and, in front of my eyes, she was paraded naked. They would not have done this had my father been around,” says Nupur.

S Bosu Mullick, the author of Dayan Gatha, says: “My research says that in the Paleolithic Age, women used to hold the major knowledges regarding human survival. They were the first to learn about herbal medicines and cultivation, obviously for treating and feeding their children. Later, the men forcefully took over the knowledge system and tried to confine the women within their houses. In different languages dayan, dakini all these mean knowledgeable woman. So, when did the meaning change? It is nothing but a gender struggle between two classes—men and women.


Is it Embedded in Adivasi Culture?

In the Indian context, the historical prevalence of this practice could be traced among Adivasis. PO Bodding who studied the Santhals for decades during the British regime, in his book Studies in Santhal Medicine, notes: “There is no genuine Santhal who doesn’t believe in witches.” Talking about how this practice affects the community, Bodding adds: “Witchcraft is the great trouble with us, Santhals. Because of witchcraft, people in the village become enemies, doors of relatives are shut, father and sons quarrel, brothers are separated, husband and wife are divorced and, in the country, people kill each other.”


Another British anthropologist Valentine Ball in his book Tribal and Peasant life in Nineteenth Century India (1880), notes: “It is a peculiarity here that the belief (of witch craft) was so thorough that even those who are accused of being witches or sorcerers do not deny the impeachment but accept the position readily with all its pains and penalties.”

John Shore, the Governor General of Bengal from 1793-1798 also took note of Santhal ways of trying witches. The demarcation of witches and their comparison with the Europeans and outsiders, commonly known as dikus, is found in the songs of Birsa Munda’s great revolt Ulgulan. One of the pioneers of Indian anthropology, KS Suresh, translated one of the songs:


Oh kill the witch, such the poison,
O kill, kill
O Father, kill the Europeans, the other castes
O kill, kill!

Shashank Sinha, in his paper titled ‘Witch Hunt, Adivasis and the Uprisings in Chhotanagpur’ points out how the cases of witch hunting during the 1857 great rebellion multiplied. Wilkinson, of the Chhotanagpur agency during the 1830s, banned ‘Shokaism’ or ‘Ojhaism’ that encouraged the attacks on witches. As a resistance to the British rule that tried to stall the witch hunt, Adivasis used it as a performance of defiance. Witch hunts for them became a non-confrontational form of resistance.

PO Bodding’s book Horkoren Mare Hapramko Reak Katha: The Traditions and Institutions of the Santhals recorded the testimonies of Santhals who expressed their discontent over the British actions. He writes, “The witches eat us and when we catch them and worry them just a little, the magistrates again turn the matter round and resort to imprisonment; we feel great distress; what can we possibly do, so that it might go well with us; we are utterly bewildered.”


“Adivasis don’t believe that they can die. So, whenever there is any illness or death, they put the onus on the witches and their evil eyes.” Poonam Toppo

But, where does the belief come from? What is the fulcrum that holds it so tightly that no institution could penetrate? Poonam Toppo, the president of Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA), an organisation working against witch hunting for decades says: “Adivasis don’t believe that they can die. So, whenever there is any illness or death, they put the onus on the witches and their evil eyes.”  

Wilkinson identified three major reasons of sickness, as believed by the Kols— witchcraft, angry bongas (Gods) and any spirit of someone who died. ET Dalton in The Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, notes: “All diseases in men or animals (are) attributed to one of two causes, the wrath of some evil spirit who has to be appeased, or to the spell of some witch or sorcerer who should be destroyed or driven out of (the) land.”


Another British anthropologist, EG Man, while noting their beliefs about witches writes, “They are supposed to have intercourse with the bongas, which gives them the power of killing people by eating their entrails and also of causing fevers, murrain in cattle and other kinds of evil.” The belief also searches for the ‘evil eyes’ that becomes the cause for the stomach aches, fever or any other illness.

So, the foundational belief that nothing can happen to them unless there is some evil-eye or witchcraft make this practice so prevalent. While several people think that it is blind faith or superstition, Mullick thinks it is ‘faith’. “In the inauguration of my book ‘Dayan Hatya, I called several Adivasis from different corners of Jharkhand and I asked them whether they believe in the existence of witches. Ninety-nine percent of them raised their hands,” he says.


Thinking Beyond the Law

Thirty-year-old Shukro Devi’s 10x10 feet room consisted of two small chairs, a bed and a few utensils. It was evident that it was not their “home”. Shukro Devi and her mother, 50, can’t go back to their home ever again.

In 2012, her mother, who lived in Jaguambatoli village of Khunti district, around 60 km from Ranchi, was branded a witch and thrown out of the house after the death of her sister-in-law. While her elder son and his wife stayed back, Shukro decided to walk out along with her mother. Even after so many years, Shukro is struggling to figure out why her mother was branded a witch. The anger in her voice is evident when she says: “We never knew there was any law. Had we known about the existing laws, don’t you think we would have gone the police instead?”


They came to know about the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, 2001 only after they met some people from local NGOs. “But now I don’t think I will go to the police and file a case. What is the point?” asks Shukro. She looks away. The tears in her eyes symbolise the pain and humiliation the two women have experienced for more than 10 years.

Most cases don’t reach the police and those being reported are shoddily investigated. In their research paper titled ‘Witch hunting in India: Do we need special laws’, Madhu Mehra and Anuja Agarwal noted that out of the 48 cases they studied, one-third never reached the police and one-fourth of the victims of witch hunting were forced not to report the cases.


Shameful documents: Copies of agreements signed by villagers and those branded as witches. Photo: Ravi Kispotta

The research paper also mentions that unless there is grievous physical injury inflicted on the victim, the criminal justice system does not come in play. In the case of Shukro, like in many others, awareness of the law is absent.

“Until and unless the government invests its energy in spreading awareness, nothing fruitful is going to happen,” says Premchand, the chairperson of Free Legal Aid Clinic (FLAC) that has been working to make people aware of the evil practice since 1991. The efforts to build awareness took the shape of a two-day conference named ‘Atrocities Against Women’ at the Tribal Culture Centre, Jamshedpur on May 26-27, 1995. Twenty-six survivors from across the districts attended the programme.


“Until and unless the government invests its energy in spreading awareness, nothing fruitful is going to happen.” Premchand, FLAC

“Our objective was to place these survivors in front of bureaucracy, intellectuals and media. Their voices needed to be heard,” says Premchand. The second significant conference was held at Patna on December 10-11, 1997 at AN Sinha Institute where survivors from the northern and southern Bihar were present and they shared their anguish and sufferings.

The efforts taken by the FLAC and a few other NGOs bore fruits as the Bihar Assembly adopted the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, 1999 and, for the first time in India, terming somebody a ‘witch’ was considered a non-bailable offence.


However, realities on the ground remained the same. As per the FLAC’s survey, from 1991-2000, 522 women had been killed across Jharkhand after they were branded witches. Between 2001 and 2010, the number jumped to 1,146. Between 2015 and 2020, according to the records of Jharkhand police, 4,556 cases have been registered against witch hunt.

In 2016, the Jharkhand government started targeted awareness campaigns in the state. However, most of the campaigns are run in Hindi and people can’t understand them easily.

What is the way out? Ramesh Kumar, a Jamshedpur-based advocate, who works as a counsellor to settle the cases of witch-branding outside the court tells Outlook: “We don’t want to pursue court cases unless it is extremely necessary. We try to make people understand the legal repercussions and make them sign bonds.”


Men in power: A man from the Mahato community

In a recent case where Roopa Murmu of Jamshedpur accused her brother-in-law of branding her a witch, an informal settlement was arrived at. “I made it clear that if he doesn’t stop it, we will file a case against him. He was scared and till now everything is fine there,” says Kumar.

The data from Jharkhand police shows that, in 2022, they registered 21 cases, of which 18 were of witch-branding and three were of murder in the name of alleged witchcraft. One of the junior police officials, on the condition of anonymity, tells Outlook: “Several cases don’t even reach the police. Legal mechanisms can hardly be deterrents. It is only awareness against superstition that will work.”


An earlier study by FLAC also shows that the conviction rate in such cases is less than two percent. “While it is very difficult to nab the accused as all the villagers come together to protect each other, it is not at all feasible to collect evidence. Several activists and scholars we spoke to tell us about the impossibility of gathering proper evidence. So, the lack of evidence even leads to the release of the accused,” says Kumar.

The deep-rooted ‘faith’ haunts the survivors every day. No law or awareness programme can placate them. As we were leaving Shukro Devi’s makeshift house, she told us: “We won’t be able to go back to our village ever. They will beat up my elder brother and throw him and his family out.” The same evening, a regional newspaper’s headline read, “Dain bol ke Khunti pe mahila ki hatya, tantra mantra ki arop” (A woman branded as witch killed in Khunti after allegations of black Magic).


Abhik Bhattacharya and Md. Asgher Khan