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The Deep Roots of Witch Branding in India

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The Deep Roots of Witch Branding in India

The practice is an outcome of patriarchy and lack of access to alternative healthcare facilities.

The Deep Roots of Witch Branding in India
Credit: Depositphotos

India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that between 2000 and 2016, more than 2,500 people, primarily women, were killed across the country over accusations of witchcraft, with minimum legal redress. The practice is prevalent across 12 states of India: Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Witch branding carries a legacy of violence, including flogging, rape, burning, and even murder. The targets are mostly old, single, or unmarried women living in the margins of the community. Elderly single women are often the victims of witch branding because they can no longer provide children or sexual services, and are therefore considered a drain on the patriarchal social system. Additionally, research shows that women and girls of Scheduled Tribes face a higher prevalence of violence, labor exploitation, harassment, and persecution as witches.

Those accused of being witches are blamed for causing bad weather, natural disasters, diseases, and sudden deaths. Prior to state-level witch prevention and anti-superstition laws, the process of witch branding often involved the presence of an ojha or faith healer who is traditionally believed to possess special powers to counter a witch’s “evil” activities. In most cases, despite the presence and implementation of these local level laws, the village ojha continues to play a critical role in identifying a person as a witch, usually an elderly and/or unsupported woman who is believed to have caused illness or some misfortune to a family or community.

The most obvious solution for ending violence against those accused of being witches would be resorting to the law. Yet in India, the laws are too weak to act as potential deterrents.

A study by Partners for Law and Development on the targeting of women as witches in states where specific witch hunting laws are operational (Jharkhand, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh) and in Assam, where no state law exists despite prevalence of witch branding, confirmed that special laws at the state level have “not prevented targeting in the form of ostracism, eviction and violence – but are used only in conjunction to the Indian Penal Code for more serious offenses without justice as reparations or compensation.”

Witnesses often do not come forward to testify as they fear distress in their lives based on social beliefs and the power of the ojhas within the community. Furthermore, despite it being the task of the police and administration to implement laws and provide protection to those at risk, studies show that police only intervene if there is a murder involved. Otherwise, they would rather suggest a compromise to prevent cumbersome legal processes.

Current laws, including state level anti-superstition laws, do not provide an effective way for victims to recover from the consequences of witch branding, such as expulsion from a village, physical violence, and displacement. Although legal frameworks are important, they do not suffice as a viable solution to prevent violence against women accused of witchcraft, highlighting the need for additional pathways. These pathways would include countering patriarchal traditions and superstitions, such as relying on ojhas for health information, as well as creating community access to and awareness of varied basic services, particularly health services.

Witch branding stems from different motives within the local community, such as loss of land, jealousy, illness, unconventional religious practices, and strangers in the village. Additionally, women who voice their agency and are vocal in the community can also be branded as witches. Yet one foundational cause stands out. One study found that out of 102 cases of witch branding, 41 involved women accused of causing illness and deaths, showcasing that witch branding due to health ailments experienced by local families was the leading motive above all the other factors.

In a study conducted by State Commission of Women, Odisha and ActionAid Association, a non-governmental organization, it was discovered that 27 percent of witch branding cases are attributed to health issues among children while 43.5 percent of the cases are connected to health issues in adult villagers.

These findings bring on a central question: How would knowledge of and access to alternative health care services, including sexual and reproductive health services, in rural villages impact the power of ojhas – and ultimately reduce the prevalence of witch hunting in India?

Superstitions play an important role in justifying witch branding for villagers who often do not have access to varied health care facilities or the knowledge of medical cures for their ailments. The ojha carries power because villagers rely on supernatural explanations stemming from the lack of knowledge about the real cause of diseases and the right treatments for them.

For example, in the 19th century in central India – now the state of Chhattisgarh – cholera was thought to be caused by witches. It was only through the spread of information and access to contemporary medicine that villagers began to understand that cholera was related to unclean water and could be treated through oral rehydration. This shows that superstitions become the vehicle through which villagers explain problems they don’t understand, unless made aware of and provided with other, more compelling solutions.

The problems of inaccessibility to healthcare facilities and lack of information on the causes behind illnesses include a lack of awareness of and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). SRHR is an essential element of healthcare for rural youth – particularly young women and girls – that is mostly overlooked. The absence of SRHR services in rural areas exacerbates the issue of child marriages, which occur at an average age of 15.7 years; 53 percent of women have their first child by the age of 17. Additionally, 3 percent of young married women report experiencing induced abortion with 92 percent of these women using private or illegal providers.

The dearth of alternative SRHR services causes young, rural women to achieve low composite scores on knowledge around sex and pregnancy, contraception, and early pregnancy, resulting in a reliance on ojhas for any pregnancy or reproductive health problems. In a study from Zimbabwe, women and men interpreted sexual health concerns as due to natural (disease, psychological stress) or supernatural (displeased ancestral or religious spirits, witchcraft) causes, based on the power of faith healers, a situation that is not too far from the reality in rural India.

Thus the reliance on ojhas to address sexual and reproductive health problems, such as difficulties in pregnancies or menstrual issues, for both men and women in India can often lead to witch branding targeting vulnerable women in rural and indigenous communities.

As Sylvia Federici argues in “Witches, Witch Hunting and Women,” capitalist patriarchal societies make women’s bodies a fundamental platform of their exploitation and resistance, making it ever more important for women to gain insights into their agency and change the narrative of mistreatment. Keeping this in mind, villagers in rural, tribal, and Indigenous areas of India need a change of perspective through education and greater availability of quality and holistic healthcare facilities that includes SRHR services.

These measures will curtail the power of the ojha so that vulnerable women can be saved from the violence of witch branding. If communities are given basic education on medical ailments, and have the chance to visit a doctor for a first or second opinion as opposed to a faith healer, they wouldn’t need to rely on an ojha for health-related problems. That, in turn, can stem the incidents of violence stemming from witch hunting.

This is not to ignore other factors leading to witch branding, such as land disputes or personal vendettas. Yet we can not deny that lack of quality health services is one of the overarching factors behind witch branding. As Maroof Khan states in her article “Blinded by Superstition: A Case Study on Witch Hunting”:

“[E]ducation and medical care in the tribal areas is an urgent necessity to [reduce] witch-hunting. Moreover, medical bodies, educational bodies, civil society organisations and community based organisations have to work collaboratively to educate people so that the next time they hear some stories, they can make an informed choice rather than becoming part of a violent mob.”

Raising awareness of and providing access to alternative medical knowledge and facilities, even though that alone can’t eliminate witch branding in India, can make a major difference in its prevalence.