When A ‘Witch’ Fights Back

In a candid interview with Abhik Bhattacharya and Md. Asghar Khan, Padma Shri awardee Chutni Mahato talks about her travails after she was branded a witch and became a saviour to 140 victims of witch hunting in Jharkhand


When A ‘Witch’ Fights Back

Images can be truly deceptive. After an almost three-hour long journey through the interiors of Jhar­khand, Abhik Bhattacharya and Md. Asghar Khan reached Birbans village of Saraikela–Kharsawan to meet Padma Shri Chutni Mahato, whose commendable work against witch hunting won her the award in 2021. A short woman in her late 50s stood in the large courtyard watching the visitors place chairs for the interview with her son’s help. They were sure that it was her. But when they asked her if she was Chutni Mahato, her immediate response was: “No”.

They were about to call her son to bring his mother, when they heard the same woman say, “Mein hi hoon Chutni Mahato. Ye mera double role hai (Yes, I am Chutni Mahato. It is my double role).” She wore a broad smile that reflected empathy and affection. It lightened the atmosphere as all, including her son, had a hearty laugh. It was necessary. In the next few hours, they spoke to her about her abandonment, humiliation and dispossession and her fight against witch hunting. The survivor–activist has rescued and rehabilitated more than 140 women. Edited excerpts.


What was your reaction when you heard that you are going to be awarded the Padma Shri?

I remember it was January 25. I was going to Bishnupur for some witch hunt-related work. I don’t remember the exact time when I received the call as I prefer to keep my mobile in silent mode. I called back and the person on the other end asked me, “What is your name?” I said, “If you don’t know my name, where did you get my number?” Then, I told him my name. The man said that his boss wanted to speak with me. As I was busy, I asked him to call around 12.


I was in the office of the Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC) and several discussions were going on when I received a call again. I went outside the office to pick it up. The same person gave the phone to his boss. “Badhai ho Chutni Devi (Congratulations Chutni Devi),” the person said. I was a bit shocked and asked him, “What for?” He then told me that the government of India was going to give me Padma Shri. I had never heard about it.

It was Jaiswal Sir who made me what I am. He didn’t give me money. Rather, he provided me with the correct guidance. He helped me understand and deal with society.

So, I asked, “How will I get to know that I am going to get it?” The officer said that TV channels would run the news in the evening and people across the world would get to know about it. I came back home at around 6 pm and received a call from a local journalist, saying, “Chutni, tomorrow, there will be a rally of media persons at your place.” I sarcastically asked, “Kya cheez ki rally lagega, gur pitha ke liye (Will the rally be for sweets)?” He laughed and informed me that the government was giving me one of the highest civilian honours of the country. I received calls from FLAC, ASHA (Association for Social and Human Awareness) and several other people. But G.S. Jaiswal, the founder of FLAC, was not there... (she breaks into tears). Had he been around, the 90-year-old would have come to greet me even in the middle of the night.


Could you tell us something about your association with FLAC and Jaiswal?

What can I say? I was associated with FLAC in 1996 after I was branded a witch, tormented and humiliated in 1995. It was Jaiswal Sir who made me what I am. He didn’t give me money. Rather, he provided me with the correct guidance. He helped me understand and deal with society. He made this office (pointing to the room attached to his house), where he asked us to collect details of women who had been branded witches and persecuted.

As I didn’t have any education, when I visited the office, people there would mock me. They used to doubt my abilities. It was Jaiswal Sir who stood by me as a guardian angel. There will be hundreds to say bad things about you but rarely will there be people, like him, who will support and extend help. Only due to this job could I raise my four children.


Would you mind sharing with us what happened in 1995?

I got married in 1978 when I was 14 years old. My husband was the only child of his parents. We were happy with life. It was only when my pare­n­ts-in-law died that the villagers started harassing us. They wanted to snatch our land. My in-laws’ village Mahatandi is around 25 km from here.

The BDO of Chaibasa in his address said, ‘Witches are there. My mother used to ask me to take care of ourselves as the witches might eat us.’

I don’t know why they branded me a witch. Those who did it perhaps would be the best people to ask. The police station was also far away and I couldn’t even think of going there. They tortured us for four–five days. I was publicly humiliated and forced to eat excreta. One of the villagers said, “We have already made her eat excreta. Now, she will be angrier and will eat us. So, it is better to chop her off and throw into the river.” They banged on our door. We were inside with four children. Mortified with fear, we couldn’t think of a way to escape a certain death.


On reflection, what do you think was the reason behind it? Were they your relatives?

It was for land only. We had around two–three acres of land back in the village, not much. Those who attacked us were extended family. They were grandsons of my father-in-law’s uncle. They went to an ojha (a witch doctor), who told them that I was a witch. Back in the villages, people rarely went to qualified medical doctors when they fell sick. They asked me, “Chachi khana do, sabji do (Aunt, give us food, cooked vegetables to eat).” And I used to give them. “Humara hi khaya aur humko hi dayan bana diya (I fed them to be branded a witch by them).”


But some villagers helped us out and we are still alive because of them. One of them was Bhagat Manjhi’s wife, who reached out to us from the backdoor and told me, “Chachi (Aunt), they will not let you live. If you want to see the faces of your children, please leave.” She showed us the way out of the village in the middle of the night.

What happened to your land and house at your in-law’s place?

They (the relatives) didn’t grab it, but they forced my husband to sell it to the neighbours. Then, my husband also left me. Nobody knows how I raised my children.


Where did you go after that?

I won’t name the place. People in these circumstances go to the place where they can find help. But I didn’t even receive that much support. Finally, I went to my brother who was in Jamshedpur. My father used to work in TISCO (Tata Iron and Steel Co.). My brother felt for me and gave me this land and Rs 10,000. I made this house from scratch and tried to navigate through life. My children and I spent many nights beneath the trees before the house was constructed and we moved in. I had decided that we would rather die than tolerate humiliation any more.


How did you join ASHA? What were the assignments you did for FLAC and ASHA?

I never joined ASHA formally. In 2006, Jaiswal’s nephew Ajay, who earlier had worked with FLAC, came to me and asked me whether I would join them. They offered me money. I was poor and in desperate need, so I immediately accepted it. They used to perform nukkad natak (street plays) and asked me to perform the role of the witch in my own story. Whenever they needed me to play the role, they contacted me.

I have, however, been working for FLAC since 1996. I used to contact women of nearby villages who were branded witches. I brought them to the FLAC office and tried to resolve the issues as far as possible. Since 2006–2007, I stopped going to the villages and now the women are required to write an application if they need us to intervene. We used to go to the police to ask them to register cases under the Prevention of Witch (DAAIN) Practices Act after the Jharkhand government promulgated the law in 2001.


What were the challenges you faced during your work?

Mostly, the police never listened to us. They used to believe in dayan and told us, “Dayan hai toh tab na bola ja raha hai (They are witches. That is why they are being branded so).” Some policemen knew about the law, the rest had no idea.

In 2011, the police tried to arrest me when I lodged a complaint in a witch hunting case. I called the DC at midnight and fortunately he intervened to save me.

In 2010, there was a seminar on witch hunting in Chaibasa and I was invited to deliver a speech for five minutes. The BDO (Block Development Officer) of Chaibasa in his address said, “Witches are there. My mother used to ask me to take care of ourselves as the witches might eat us.” When it was my turn to speak, I asked him, “BDO sahib, how did you identify witches”? He said that his mother used to tell him about witches. Then I said, “Listen, I am a witch. Be careful while going back home today.” No sooner had I said that the BDO fled from the venue. I never saw him again. When educated people like him can hold such views, what can we hope from the unlettered? They will definitely do so.


In 2011, the police tried to arrest me when I lodged a complaint in a witch-hunting case. I called the DC (deputy commissioner) at midnight and fortunately, he intervened to save me.

Do you think the law has helped prevent the practice to some extent?

Those who are aware of the law are not indulging in it. But there is hardly any awareness about the law. In 2021, I got the Padma Shri for fighting against the evil and the next year in Ranedi village under Sonahatu Police Station, three women were killed after they were branded witches. I don’t think the law has been as effective as it should be in the first place. We can rehabilitate the survivors, not those who are killed. The government must show the will to discharge its responsibilities.


We keep women who come with complaints with us until the attackers sign bonds to not harm them again. Sometimes, they stay at my house for more than six months.

Is there a perceptible change in your life after you were awarded the Padma Shri? Do the police listen to you now?

Yes. This is what I can say. The police now show some respect and salute me. If they don’t listen to me, I tell them that I would write to the governor or the President. They usually get scared.

As far as my financial status is concerned, nothing has changed. The struggle goes on. Earlier, fewer people visited me. Now, with fame the use of sugar has increased (laughing). More people mean more tea and more sugar, indeed. Perhaps, there is light at the end of the tunnel.