“Are you a witch?
Have you had relations with the devil?
Have you had relations with the devil and what took place?
What knowledge did the devil give you?”
—An excerpt from ‘Interrogations’ by Rebecca Tamás
“It was in 2009 when mental illness gripped me. I was 24 then,” says Ankita Lamay (name changed), now 38, as she starts narrating what made her a mental health patient. She adds, “I struggled to eat, interact, or do any work. I would always feel unwell and low.”
Her failure to perform social roles, spending her days mostly in despair and isolation, not checking the boxes of ‘normalcy’ as guided by the psycho-social norms and structures, it nevertheless took her family a year to realise that something was not right with her.
Lamay was taken from her village in Khuntpani, Jharkhand to Rankiya in Odisha for medical treatment by her family in 2010. “Rankiya also happens to be my second village,” she says proudly. The Adivasis of India often stand torn between states as their villages, earlier guided by rivers and mountains, now stand divided by state-drawn boundaries and borders.
For six months, her family administered her medicines prescribed by the doctor. When asked if she knew about her illness and what was she being treated for, Lamay says: “I was only told by my uncles that the medicines will cure my stress and treat my abnormalities.”
A Union of Madness and Witchcraft
Married to a man in nearby Boya village in 2012, Lamay was anything but ‘sane’ to her in-laws. “I had not recovered from my illness. I would cry almost all the time and not eat. It didn’t take them too long to accuse me of practicing witchcraft and labelling me crazy.”
The horrific account of her marital life entails multiple visits to an ojha (shaman), a sorcerer and a good witch capable of faith healing and ridding one’s body of ‘possessions’ and ‘spirits’.
Lamay recounts the torture she was subjected to during her treatment by the ojha. “He would hit me repeatedly with a chaabuk (whip) until my body bled. I would keep screaming in pain and agony but he wouldn’t let go of me saying that he was not hurting me but was beating the evil spirits out of me,” recalls Lamay.
Her pleas would go unheard and unheeded as her in-laws dragged her to the ojha each time. “I begged them to not take me to him but it was all in vain. Even my own parents never hit me as much as the ojha did.”
She was taken to the ojha on five different occasions and each time she would return soaked in blood. After two years of maddening torture, she walked out of her marriage and began living with her family.
But can an unmarried, ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘insane’ woman, once branded a witch, live happily unmarried or divorced?
She was remarried in 2019 to a substance abuser. Within two years of their marriage, her husband died on September 30, 2021, in a hospital in Chaibasa. He was left with only four grams of blood in his body due to substance abuse, Lamay shares. Following yet another tragedy, she came back home in October of the same year and resumed living with her family.
It was at this juncture, she learned about Ekjut’s Sukhu-Dukhu Saathi (partner in happiness and sorrow) programme. The organisation works at the grassroots level with mental health patients and focuses on connecting with patients, empowering them and distressing them by helping them realise their rights and entitlements.
“After associating with the likes of me and seeking help from Ekjut, my condition gradually improved. I have now started working and have also developed some confidence to interact with people,” Lamay says, as she invites me to her village for the upcoming Sarhul (a spring festival celebrated in Jharkhand) celebrations. Before I respond, an Ekjut member warns me of giving her any false hopes. “She had invited me to come to her house for Christmas but due to unavoidable circumstances, I could not visit. Her family told her off saying why would an important person agree to come to her place and that and she was mad enough to be imagining such things,” he says.
I chew on my words, trying to remember Lamay’s response to my question if her family treated her well. “They don’t torture or abuse me. They keep me well and behave nicely,” she says in an indistinct tone, very casually.
The understanding of mental health remains a taboo even in mainstream Indian communities and households to date with associations with it it often being that of madness, craziness, hysteria, insanity and other misconceptions.
When I met Kunti Devi in Lohardaga district in Jharkhand, she kept repeating that she was driven to insanity by her in-laws and villagers, who, for over two decades, have tortured her on the pretext of being a dayan (witch). Her eldest son, 18, came along with her during our meeting and never took off his helmet. The young boy barely spoke anything during our interactions that lasted for over two hours. Her son’s concealed face and eyes peeping through his helmet haunted me.
Dr Sanjay Munda, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the Central University of Psychiatry, Kanke, noted that the mental and emotional impact and damage left by witch branding and hunting is generational. Recollecting his own experiences with the families of victims and survivors, he tells me: “The children of witch branding or hunting survivors have very low self-esteem. It is beyond the already complicated issues of adolescence. These children are not just stripped of their childhood but also struggle to erase the branding all their lives or hide their pain.”
Dr Munda adds that witch hunting and branding is a community practice and cannot be seen out of context. There are social, cultural, mental, political, financial and even sexual connotations to this practice. The insufficiency of laws and the government’s failure to bring back survivors into the mainstream is one of the biggest causes of the problem going unaddressed.
Speaking about the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS)-run Garima project and the Central Institute of Psychiatry (CIP), Munda said that while the initiative is the first of its kind in India, it falls short in involving all the stakeholders, including ‘faith healers’, as well as those ‘languishing in jails’, on charges of witch hunting and witch branding.
Munda, who is also a member of the National Association of Psychiatrists, believes that those who have been arrested on account of witch hunting or witch branding are not solely responsible for their crime. The faith system, embedded for generations within the community, has led them into believing that such practices exist and anyone pursuing it is a threat. Therefore, before labelling them as criminals, the motivation and inspiration for their crimes must also be studied to prevent the repetition of such instances.
A native of Hyderabad, Dr Prasad Kannekenti’s work in the field of mental health expands over a timeframe of over 10 years. Dr Kannekenti, who has worked in Bengaluru and New Delhi before moving to the CIP, shared that he never came across as many cases relating to witch branding/hunting and mental health issues before. Located in Kanke, the CIP is India’s largest mental health institute.
Prasad underlines the huge treatment gap among the general Indian population and cites the National Mental Health Survey reports which find a 70-80 percent gap in mental health issue treatment.
He says that discriminated against in society, and abused by their own community or family members, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems are found commonly among survivors or victims. “We have conducted various programmes with survivors through the JSLPS. During the sessions, we have observed that while there are also male survivors, over 95 percent of survivors and victims are women,” he adds.
There are also cases when there is a high possibility of someone being labelled a witch if they are suffering from disassociative disorder, psychiatric disorders etc. The labelling happens as a result of the dearth of awareness and knowledge about mental health issues and accessibility, affordability ad availability of medical help. Dr Prasad’s observations amalgamates with my own experiences as my month passes looking for witches, witch hunt survivors and their families.
Most survivors, in their response to the question of seeking mental health treatment, say that while the treatment could be affordable, reaching for treatment from remote villages on a frequent basis is not practically possible for them. Hence, poverty tightens its grip on the ‘witches’ and their families and drives them deeper into madness.
Sachin Barbde, public health worker and a member of Ekjut, while sharing his experience in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, puts the issue into perspective. “The prevalent theory of treating mental health should not just come from the medical but from a psychosocial perspective. Poverty, alienation, stigma and isolation define the experiences of a survivor also struggling with mental health issues,” he says, adding that the approach to dealing with an issue as complex as mental health in witch hunt survivors should shift from the traditional approaches of medication to a more pragmatic, community-centric approach.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Tackling The Taboo")