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India needs a national law against witch hunts and other superstitious practices

22 June 2011

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The Telegraph, 22 June 2011

DEVILRY BY THE MOB

The Rajasthan government has introduced a draft bill to tackle the social evil of witch hunts. However, a national law aimed at eradicating the practice may be more effective, argues Hemchhaya De


- evil doings: A protest against the recent killings of women branded as ‘witches’ in Assam

Sarla Brahma, 52, Bifula Narzary, 49, Purni Basumatary, 57, Modani Boro, 55, and Toposri, 57, were all victims of a horrendous medieval superstition. A couple of months ago these women were hacked to death by their fellow villagers in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. The reason? They were all suspected of practising black magic or witchcraft.

Of course, such incidents are not confined to Assam alone. At least 12 states — Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Bihar — are recognised as areas where witch hunts are rampant even today.

While statistics regarding the magnitude of the problem are scarce, according to unofficial estimates in the last 15 years around 2,500 women have been killed after being branded “witches”. “About 500 cases occurred in Jharkhand alone in the past few years,” says Aparna Dwivedi, who heads the Women’s Justice Initiative at the Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, a group that fights for social causes.

In a move to tackle the problem, the Rajasthan government recently came up with draft legislation that lays down stringent penalties for those who harass or assault women by branding them “witches”. Section 4 of the draft Rajasthan Women (Prevention & Protection from Atrocities) Bill, 2011, says that whoever maligns or accuses a woman of being a “Dayan or Dakan or Dakin, Chudail or Bhootni or Bhootdi or Chilavan or Opri or Randkadi” (all terms denoting a woman who practises witchery) will be punished with a prison term extending up to three years, along with a fine that can go up to Rs 5,000.

It further says that whoever uses “criminal force against a woman and/or instigates or provokes others in doing so with intent to harm and/or to displace her from the house, place or the property, lawfully occupied or owned by her…” in the name of stopping “witchcraft” or “possession” will be punished with imprisonment extending up to seven years and a maximum fine of Rs 20,000.

The draft bill also states that if a person intimidates or tortures a woman by calling her a “witch” and such harassment results in her suicide, then he or she can face a 10-year prison term along with a fine of Rs 50,000.

However, though activists have welcomed the Rajasthan government’s initiative per se, they point out that more needs to be done. “The intention is noble. But the draft law is sketchy and has to include more details,” says Kavita Srivastava, Jaipur-based general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, an organisation that campaigns against witch hunting across India.

Srivastava also reveals that in the draft law witch hunting is merely a part of a range of crimes perpetrated on women, such as acid-throwing, stripping a woman in public and so on. “There should be a separate bill for a crime like witch hunting, which is rampant in Rajasthan,” she says.

Some states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh do have specific laws against witch hunts. Chhattisgarh’s Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act, 2005, lays down a three-year prison term for people who accuse a woman of being a tonahi or dayan and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who causes physical harm to a woman by calling her a “witch”. The Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 1999, in Bihar and the Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001, in Jharkhand also lay down similar punishments for people indulging in witch hunts.

Maharashtra is one state that tried to enact a law against witch hunts and other superstitious practices some years ago. It failed primarily because of opposition from some religious groups that felt that the law might do away with certain ancient rites altogether. However, the Maharashtra government is apparently planning to introduce a bill to combat the social ills of witchcraft and human sacrifice once again.

Again, though witch hunts are prevalent in some districts of West Bengal like Purulia, Bankura and Birbhum, the state has not taken any legal action to try and curb the practice.

This is why activists say that a national law against witch hunts is needed. Says Poli Kataki, a Delhi-based advocate who was part of a team of lawyers that filed a PIL against witch hunting in the Supreme Court last year. “The sentences prescribed and the paltry fines recommended in the state laws have so far proved ineffective in curbing this social menace.”

If we look at national laws, most witch hunt cases are dealt with by Section 323 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which prescribes one year’s imprisonment and a Rs 1,000 fine to anyone who causes harm voluntarily. In other words, the punishment for brutalising a woman by calling her a witch could be the same as that for slapping a person. Other sections like 302 (murder) of the IPC are invoked in witch hunt cases that lead to a woman’s death.

In fact, when a law suit was filed by the NGO Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra on behalf of nearly 1,000 rural women in Jharkhand who were victims of witch hunts last year, the Supreme Court refused to even entertain it. “A bench comprising then Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, Justice Deepak Verma and Justice T.S. Thakur refused to entertain the suit, asking the petitioner to approach the high courts of the states,” says Kataki.

However, there are instances when the Supreme Court has called for an effective enforcement of state laws against witch hunts. For instance, while deciding on a case in 1991, the apex court asked the Bihar government to form special cells to deal with the issue and draw up a census of widows owning property as they were believed to be particularly vulnerable to being derided as witches.

But some point out that land grabbing is not the sole reason for witch hunts. For example, a recent study by the Cornell Law School in the US notes, “Several causes motivate witch hunting. Sometimes, the victim is thought to have caused illness, death or a bad harvest. In other cases, she is being punished for refusing sexual advances or challenging the authority of the community elders.”

Dwivedi feels that the basic problem of implementing laws against witch hunts is that since the crime is usually committed by a group of people, it’s difficult to pinpoint blame. “Also, if the police take action, the victim cannot go back to the community which has stigmatised her. So rehabilitating her is another challenge,” she says.

Kataki suggests that the women and child development ministry set up a separate fund to support and rehabilitate victims.

While every legal initiative to combat the practice is necessary and welcome, experts stress that they must be carried out in tandem with an effective and extensive awareness campaign. For as long as people suffer from this blind superstition, the social evil of persecuting women in the name of witch hunts cannot be rooted out.

P.S.

The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use only.