- West Bengal lags in efforts to wipe out witch-hunting. But with enabling guidelines from the courts, the noose can gather tighter around the evil, says Kavitha Shanmugham
IN THE ACT: A street play against witch-hunting in a village in West Midnapore
September 12, 2015, was a black night for Moyna Murmu, a woman in her mid-forties. The residents of Salboni village, West Midnapore, dragged her to the ojha (witch doctor), holding her responsible for her sister-in-law’s cancer. They believed she had used jaadu-tona to make her sister-in-law sick. To remove the evil spirit inside her, Moyna was severely beaten, her clothes torn off and she was nearly raped by the witch doctor. Moyna managed to escape and went to the police who failed to take any action. On a lawyer’s advice, she and her husband gathered their tattered pride to file a writ petition in the Calcutta High Court (CHC) against police inaction in the area and the need for a law to prevent horrific crimes such as witch-hunting.
In a way, Moyna created history in the state. It was because of her writ petition, and a second writ by Nandu Murmu — an old farmer from Jagannathpur village of the same district, who was mercilessly beaten up along with his wife, and thrown out of the village for practising “witchcraft” — that “certain directives” have been issued by the CHC to the state government to eradicate the “evil practice” of witch-hunting. The high court, however, stopped short of asking the government to frame a law against witch-hunting, as Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam, Bihar and Rajasthan have done.
On August 2, 2016, Justice Joymalya Bagchi directed the Bengal government to form an expert committee to study the problem, the areas, especially the tribal belts, in which it is widely prevalent and submit the report within six months. And, to form special cells manned by intelligence officers in areas prone to witch-hunting and ensure prompt action against people who hunted down the “witches”.
“The petitioners’ plea was two-fold: they wanted the court to direct the police to take action and the state government to frame a law against witch-hunting,” says Nilanjan Bhattacharjee, advocate, CHC, on behalf of the petitioners. The petition pointed out that witch-hunting in Bengal occurs in economically backward areas with little access to basic education and healthcare. “It is here (that) people develop very strong superstitions and anything bad that might befall the villagers like bad crop, diseases, sudden and unexplained death of a family member, or drying of a well tends to be considered the work of some evil ‘witch’. Thus begins a witch hunt,” the writ petition held.
Women’s organisations and NGOs in the state admit to battling this social evil with awareness campaigns like street theatres, video screenings and providing legal help. “There is, however, no collective action for a law,” admits Srichandra, assistant secretary of Swadhina, an NGO that works in Midnapore, which is notorious for witch hunts. Srichandra welcomes the CHC’s intervention and believes a law would help to create “fear” in people indulging in witch hunts.
Witch-hunting has been defined in the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, 2013, as identifying, accusing or defaming a woman as a witch or harassing, harming or injuring a woman whether mentally or physically, or damaging her property. The laws in some states also spell out extensively what constitutes witch-craft practised under different local names like guni, natak darpana, etc., who is a witch doctor, and what constitutes witch-hunting to leave no stone unturned in nailing all the people who turn on vulnerable people (mostly widows, single women or old women) to label them a witch and harm them.
The National Crime Records Bureau reveals that in 2013-14, nearly 316 persons were killed on the suspicion of being witches. It seems to be thriving especially in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
While Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhatisgarh, Assam and, most recently, Rajasthan have framed acts to curb this malaise, Bengal is taking fledgling steps in that direction with the recent court order.
“A public outcry is required to make the government enact a law,” observes Sashiprava Bindhani, an activist-lawyer whose writ in 2012 got the Orissa High Court to direct the state government to frame a law. “It is not enough to frame a law. How do you make it work for people who lack access to the judicial system,” asks Bindhani. The lawyer-activist advocates awareness campaigns to put an end to prejudices.
“It is common to see a tribal boy or girl walk into the police station with a bloodied head and surrender for having killed a relative whom they blamed for the misfortunes in their family,” says Ajay Kumar Jaiswal, secretary, ASHA, an NGO in Jharkhand.
The Jharkhand Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 2001, has clearly been ineffective, he adds. “The maximum imprisonment of one year and a fine of Rs 2,000 is hardly a deterrent. Twenty-three women have already been killed in Jharkhand this year. The law needs to be amended and made tougher,” Jaiswal says.
“The situation is bad in Bengal, especially in Purulia on the Jharkhand border, and in tribal areas where doctors are scarce and people turn to witch doctors. When vested interests are at play, the ‘doctor’ gets a cut for identifying a woman as a witch. Mostly, it has to do with the ulterior motive of grabbing property or a refusal of sexual favour,” he adds.
Sunanda Mukherjee, chairperson, West Bengal State Women’s Commission, claims helplessness. The problem is rampant among the poor and marginalised in areas like Bankura, Midnapore and Burdwan. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a special law as yet because of a lack of support from social activists and the media,” says Mukherjee. So, the police today turn to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989 — which was recently amended — to book people accused of witch-hunting, she says.
Bengal could take into account the tough provisions in the Odisha, Rajasthan and Assam laws. For example, in Odisha, anyone who makes a woman “drink or eat any inedible substance or any other obnoxious substance or parade her with painted face or body or commits any similar acts which are derogatory to human dignity or displaced from her house, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but may extend to five years and fine.”
“These are cognizable, non-bailable crimes and on a second conviction, the punishment escalates to seven years’ imprisonment,” says Sujata Jena, advocate in the Orissa High Court.
The most recent legislation, the Rajasthan Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, 2015, which came into force in January 2016, provides for punishment up to seven years, which can become life imprisonment if a woman dies because of witch-hunting. A PIL in 2010 by Ajay Kumar Jain, a Rajasthan High Court lawyer, lead to the law. Important facets include a “collective fine” imposed by the state government on inhabitants of an area guilty of witch-hunting, a victim compensation scheme, rehabilitation of victims, awareness programmes against blind belief, and educating people about the “absurd concept of evil spirit and witchcraft”.
“A law provides a handle to tackle the situation,” says Jena.
But Justice Bagchi refused to direct the Bengal government to frame a law, citing Gaurav Jain vs State of Bihar & Ors, in which the apex court had declined to issue an mandamus upon Bihar to pass special legislation on the issue and stuck to just laying down broad guidelines to control the practice. However, to help the victims, Justice Bagchi directed the government to provide the victims with legal assistance through the District Legal Services Authority; medical and psychological help; and explore the possibility of formulating a comprehensive victim compensation scheme under Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Sociologists believe criminalising witch-hunting through special laws is an “inadequate” response. But, for stakeholders on the ground, it is a leverage to stub out the fires around a so-called dayan!