Monday, December 11, 2017

'Going on a witch hunt' in India is real — and deadly

Jason Overdorf, Special to USA TODAY
(December 2017)

BHILWARA, India — "Going on a witch hunt" is a custom many in India observe — and for those hunted it can be deadly.

Just ask Ramkanya Devi, 80, who still lives in fear three months after a young neighbor branded her as a witch responsible for the girl's illness.

“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” Devi said, sitting in the shack she shares with her husband of more than 60 years in this western Indian village. “I’m still scared they might kill me if they catch me alone.”

Stories like Devi’s are common across India, even though the state of Rajasthan, where Devi lives, outlawed branding people as witches in 2015, and other states adopted similar laws.

Nearly 2,000 people across India, mostly women, were killed for alleged witchcraft between 2005 and 2015, the most recent numbers available from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.

Devi, who has lived here her whole life, has been a midwife to countless women, while her husband and two sons run small barbershops. When a local schoolgirl fell ill, she went to the village bhopa, a self-proclaimed sorcerer with powers to heal, bring good fortune, conjure up voodoo and identify witches. He convinced the girl's family that she was a victim of witchcraft, and she named Devi as the witch.

That led to death threats and a vow to burn their house, so Devi’s family kept her locked in a musty brick storage room — where she spent 18 days in the dark before an activist who seeks to eradicate witch hunts arranged for her rescue.

“She was crying and kept saying, ‘I’m not a witch. I’m not a witch. Don’t kill me,’” said activist Tara Ahluwalia, who has fought to protect women from witch hunts since 1986.

Bhilwara police superintendent Pradeep Sharma said bhopas are at the root of the problem.

“Bhopas are a very widespread social evil,” said Sharma. “People go to these bhopas for a number of problems, mostly to cure their illnesses. ... They call spirits and try to remove spirits. It’s something like voodoo.”

Ajay Kumar Jain, a lawyer who petitioned for protections against witch hunts, said "branding a woman as a witch is itself a serious offense, punishable with up to five years of rigorous imprisonment.”

So far, 13 victims of witch hunts have received compensation of $750 to $3,000 from the state government. But no one has been convicted in the 86 cases filed since the Prevention of Witch-hunting Act was passed two years ago, largely because of the slow pace of India’s courts. In three of those cases, the witch hunts ended with the killing of the women accused of witchcraft.

Sharma said police receive many complaints, but the term "witch" is often used as an insult during a dispute, and the aggrieved party sees the new law as an opportunity.

“It’s not always that somebody is cast as a witch and thrown out of the village,” Sharma said. "By complaining that they were called a witch, they can (file) a legal case.”

Ahluwalia set out to prove that witch hunts are real. She donned a garish sari and posed as a superstitious villager to nab aggressors in the act. She caught seven bhopas on video as they tried to “exorcise” women volunteers she claimed were witches by chanting mantras, slapping them and beating them with a broom.

“One female bhopa beat my volunteer so badly that she tore out a piece of her hair, and she put a sword to her neck,” Ahluwalia said. “Right now, all seven are behind bars.”

Police say eliminating witch hunts will likely remain a challenge, given the fine line between superstition and religion. Sharma said the authorities prosecute these bhopas and run educational programs to convince people to stop going to them, but it's difficult.

“We found in a lot of the cases, single women, especially women belonging to the lower strata of society, were harassed by being branded as witches,” lawyer Jain said. “The objective in most of the cases was just to grab their property.”

In one of Ahluwalia’s cases, a 40-year-old woman was stripped naked, forced to eat feces, made to walk on hot coals and blinded before she was killed. She was a widow, and her alleged torturers were her niece and nephew, who wanted to snatch the land she inherited from her husband, according to a police complaint lodged by her children.

A woman accused of witchcraft who survives the physical abuse is ostracized by society. Ahluwalia said. “Physically, she is alive, but she has been killed in so many ways.”