Odisha has been witnessing mass witch hunts and murders every year. The cases of witch-hunt are much higher in Odisha in comparison to other states of India. According to the Odisha Rationalist Society, an independent body of rationalists, this is basically a major problem for the women. Witchhunting claims the lives of around 70 women in Odisha every year.
To stop witch hunting, the Odisha Government has implemented an Act called Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act-2013, which provisions penalty for practising witchcraft. The Act provides a provision for a fine of Rs 5,000 and imprisonment up to 1-year for those who practice witchcraft The Act also provides a penalty of Rs 1,000 and a jail term up to 3-years for witch-hunters. But despite the stringent law, the number of witch-hunting cases has remained the same in the state.
We spoke to rationalist society secretary Devendra Sutar, who has been fighting against superstitions in the society, to learn more about the reasons behind the witch hunt and the suspected killings.
What is the main cause of witch-hunting?
Many people believe in superstition rather than scientific reason even in this 21st century. In tribal areas, people brand a person as a witch for any unpleasant happenings. If a child suffers from any disease, if someone dies without any reason, if the cow does not give milk, if the cow suddenly dies, the people there firmly believe that all this happens due to witchcraft.
The main reason behind this is lack of education, awareness, health facilities, which are still far away from them. So those people consider witch as the main cause of all diseases. Moreover, their financial condition is also responsible for hardship and difficulties, they face. Since their financial condition is not good, they eat unhealthy food, due to which they suffer from many diseases.
With-hunting occurs mainly in Dalit caste and poor societies including tribal communities like Santhals, Sabars. The women suffer the most in the practice. Society easily targets women who live alone and become widows. If anyone denies sexual favour, some people accuse her of being a witch. Sometimes, they accuse a person of being a witch to grab the property of the victim, to avenge past animosity and also for political enmity.
How do they blame a person as a witch?
It varies region-wise; while dreams label a person as a witch in some areas, in some areas the witch is identified by turning the bed. After that, they tie a woman/man to an electric pole, tonsure their heads, break their teeth, strip them naked and roll them around the village. They also ask for a penalty. Sometimes they kill them.
Sometimes if they survive somehow, they are tortured, even family members do not accept them, after being labelled as a witch. They cannot live with their dignity.
Between 2010 and 2019, as many as 532 people have been killed on suspicion of witchcraft. In 2019, the number was 51 and in 2018 it was 39. The cases of witch-hunting have increased remarkably. If the number decreases in one year, then a higher number of cases are reported in the subsequent year.
Is a man also killed on suspicion of being a witch?
Yes, but the number is very low. According to 2019 figures, the number of people who died on suspicion of witchcraft was 27 women, 14 men and 10 children.
The spine chilling fact is that the killings have not remained limited to adults. Police records show the age of victims ranges from 10-year to 60-year.
Which places in Odisha have more witch-hunting cases?
Mostly Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, undivided Sundargarh, Ganjam, Koraput, Gajapati district witness a large number of cases of witch-hunting.
How does your organization fight against this?
Since 2000, we have started working against it. We formed an organization called ‘Hetuvadi Samaj’. First, we started going to those areas, where witch-hunting caused murder, to check the facts. Knowing such superstition behind the murders, I filed a case in the Odisha High Court, for which a law was enacted in 2013, called Odisha Prevention of Witch-hunting Act-2013.
Apart from this, we conduct awareness programs, campaigns, drama and street play in many villages, where we show some special skills to the villagers, which they believe to have supernatural powers. We also help them understand the science behind it. We also publish a magazine called ‘Baigyanika Charcha’ every three months, in which we share the facts of these blind beliefs.
Our organization has saved many lives. We get information about the place where witch-hunting is practised and reach there as soon as possible to rescue them with the help of police and administration and help rehabilitate that person. Sometimes we also take help of Human Rights Commissions to give back their property.
By: Subhra Kar