Murders, mainly of women, on the charge of being witches (i.e. using supernatural powers to cause harm) are reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to have been the motive behind an average of 168 murders a year between 2001 and 2016, with another 66 in 2019. These are likely to be underestimates since many witch killings could be listed as due to women’s claims to land and other property, which often cause accusations of witchcraft. Women accused of and brutally tortured for being witches are many more than those killed. ASHA, an NGO in Jharkhand, estimates that about 10 percent of women in Jharkhand’s villages have been victims of being accused as witches. The women are punished in inhuman ways for their alleged diabolical activities. The violence inflicted on them includes humiliation, banishment from home and killings along with the seizure of land and properties. This form of abuse of their human rights came to the attention of some state governments in India and also of the United Nations Human Rights Council as an international problem as early as 2009, in 2017 and, once again, in July 2022, where one of the authors (Govind Kelkar) was invited to make a presentation on witch persecution in Asia.
The incidence of the persecution of women as witches is not trivial. While there are instances of witch hunting among non-Adivasis and in rural areas, this phenomenon is concentrated in the central Indian Adivasi belt and, even there, it is confined to Adivasi women. Men who get caught in such persecution are often those who stand in support of their wives facing such accusations. Among the matrilineal Khasi in Meghalaya, men are usually the prime victims, accused of feeding human blood to the mythical serpent, thlen. Among the Nagas, too, men can be accused of having the ‘Tiger spirit’. Overall, women constitute around 80 percent of those killed, which is also the proportion in the witch hunts of medieval Europe.