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  • Dangerous Dalit Women and Witch-Hunters

    Meena KandasamyON MARCH 28, Lalpari Devi, a 45-year-old Dalit woman was accused of being a witch by caste-Hindu, feudal villagers in Bihar who mercilessly beat her up, paraded her through the streets, tied her to a palm tree, cut her hair and smeared her face with limestone paste. She was saved from certain death by the timely arrival of the police. Lalpari somehow managed to survive the ordeal of social censure and hysteric, mob-driven humiliation. Many of her sisters have not been that lucky.

    According to conservative (official, and outdated) estimates, 2,556 women were branded as witches and killed in India between 1987 and 2003. From 1991 to 2000, over 522 cases of witch-hunting have been registered in Bihar alone. In the same decade, about 300 people were done to death in the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh on the suspicion that they were practising black magic. Bihar, for all its backwardness, was the first state in India to pass a law against witch-hunting in 1999. Jharkhand followed up with its anti-witch-hunt law in 2001, Chhattisgarh in 2005 and Rajasthan in 2006. An essential excerpt of the legalese: “a crime would be considered to have been committed when any person or community intentionally or inadvertently abets, conspires, aids and instigates the identification of a woman as a witch leading to her mental and physical torture and humiliation.” What is wonderful on paper rarely gets translated into something effective in practice. Besides, the threat of punishment and conviction hasn’t been a deterrent since the perpetrators of the crime (always male, almost always caste-Hindus who enjoy political clout) know that they will not be brought to book for what will be seen as an incidence of mob fury. Sometimes, it is the knowledge that the state will stand by them.

    This free hand gives a free run to their imaginations, and witch-hunts have grown macabre by the day. The helpless ‘witches’ are hounded and punished by being stripped naked, paraded around the villages, their hair is burnt off or their heads tonsured, their faces blackened, their noses cut off, their teeth pulled out (they are supposedly defanged) so that they can no longer curse, they are whipped, they are branded, sometimes, they are forced to eat human faeces and finally, they are put to death (here again the Indian imagination takes over: the victim is hanged, impaled, hacked, lynched or buried alive). And you have got it all wrong if you assumed that such stomach-churning, toe-curling torture is done in dingy, shadowy places: vast, open village lands come in particularly handy as favoured locations, and the cheering crowd can fill a modest stadium. Where these women are left to live, they are considered inauspicious and malevolent, socially ostracized and forced to forgo their livelihood. Where they don’t end up losing their life, they are made to lose their mental balance.

    It is no surprise that almost all the ‘witches’ have been Dalit or Adivasi women. Nowhere else in Indian history can we see such an explicit tie-up between patriarchal oppression and casteist subjugation. Witch-hunting is a powerful tool in the hands of caste-Hindu men who want to persecute assertive Dalit and Adivasi women who might directly challenge caste hegemony, or indirectly subvert local power equations.

    Because names and places and stories speak stronger than statistics, here’s a sample: A Dalit woman, Badam Bai was beaten to death by four men at Bhunein village in Sultanpur in Kota district. Lajwanti Harijan of Kamolar village in the same district met with a similar fate. When a Dalit woman in Tarra village in Raipur district claimed rights to her dead husband’s land, she was killed after being branded a witch by her brother-in-law. Memki Bai Bhajaat of Varlipahada village and Sakri Bai Meena of Sailana village of Udaipur district were branded witches because of property disputes. Subhadra Basumatray, a 40-year-old Bodo woman in Tilapara village of Goalpara district in Assam, denounced rituals conducted by witch-doctors. Just as she started to voice her dissent, she ended with a fractured arm, broken ribs and bruised legs. Her own family members colluded with others to declare her a witch because she had demanded a share in her father’s property. An Adivasi woman panchayat president in Udaipur district in Rajasthan was declared a witch by caste-Hindu villagers who wanted to settle political scores. In neighbouring Nepal, a 52-year-old Dalit woman Dayawati Urab and her daughter Sunita Kumari Urab of Sunsari village were stripped naked, beaten, and forced to eat human faeces because villagers suspected them of indulging in sorcery.

    Such humiliations, lynchings and killings, done with nauseous ingenuity haven’t spared old women either. In November 2004, Dhoopi Raigar, a 70-year-old Dalit woman from Jita Ka Dalda in Tonk district was forcibly dragged out of her son’s house by some villagers who cut off her hair and attempted to immolate her. Her son’s increasing prosperity infuriated the ‘upper’ castes who sought to prevent it by accusing Dhoopi of being a witch. A 65-year-old Dalit woman labourer Pochamma and her 70-year-old husband Sailu were burnt to death in Ulitimaipalli village near Hyderabad because they were suspected of using black magic to kill cattle. In Gaandi village in Angara Block in Ranchi, two old Dalit widows Jeetan Devi and Dubhan Devi were tortured and held responsible for the death (due to malaria) of two children. The women were tonsured, beaten, paraded and burnt to death. Before the final disgrace, earthen pitchers were broken on their heads. As recent as August 2007, Bali Bharu Doli, an 85-year-old Dalit woman in Rajasthan was mercilessly beaten and forced to keep a burning coal in her mouth on the suspicion that she was a witch. Barely a month later, on Sep 2, 2007, two elderly women in their 60s were murdered by their sons in Orissa’s Keonjhar district for allegedly practicing sorcery.

    Where do these cruel and perverse caste-Hindu witch-hunters get the moral high ground to condemn Dalit and Adivasi women? Revolutionary Dr. Ambedkar observed that the Atharva Veda itself is “nothing but a collection of sorcery, black-magic and medicine,” so witchery is not something new to the ‘upper’ castes. And shouldn’t the caste-Hindus be reminded of Joan Mencher’s sociological insight into sorcery in Travancore, that “some social control over the excesses of the high-caste landlords was exercised through the thread of Pulaya black magic” since Pulaya medicine men and witch doctors were believed to possess the “powers of bringing malaise and misfortune on wrongdoers, especially the cruel landlords and wicked bossmen.” Shouldn’t the oppressor caste-Hindus be ashamed that Dalits could have come up the idea of black magic and communion with the spirit world only in order to subvert the caste system where the priestly caste alone enjoyed the hotline to God?

    It is true that lack of adequate health care systems have spawned the growth of alternative beliefs and faith healing, and consequently witch-doctors. But that is not the reason why Dalit and Adivasi women have been singled out for public humiliation. By punishing those who are seen as vile and wild, oppressors want to send a not-so-subtle message to the women of their own castes: docility and domesticity gets rewarded, anything else gets punished. This has been the legacy of violence against women.

    When sin meets superstition, as in witch-hunting, the victims are also single (read widowed / deserted / divorced) women of a certain age who are no longer burdened with reproductive duties. The word ‘witch’ is thrust on these ‘dangerous’ women who asserted their entitlement to rights and thus challenged patriarchal and caste supremacist diktats. Dalit or Adivasi women who dared to contest elections and directly challenged the political power of the landed caste-Hindus have been labeled hags. They have been accused of exercising black magic when in fact they have only been exercising their fundamental rights. Witchcraft, when used by brutal caste-Hindus in the modern context, has come to signify women’s resistance to oppression, and the price they have paid for it.

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    9 Responses

    1. It’s really fascinating to me how witchcraft beliefs are such thinly veiled tools of the worldwide patriarchy. Reading your examples and analysis, I could hear my professor on the Salem (Massachusetts USA) witchcraft trials saying incredibly similar things. Carol Karlsen’s “Devil in the Shape of a Woman; Witchcraft in Colonial New England”:

      P 101-2 Women in families without male heirs stood to inherit much more property than those in families with male heirs, making them “aberrations in a society with an inheritance system designed to keep property in the hands of men.” Women in this situation make up a sizeable majority of New England’s accused female witches and are more likely to be brought to trial, convicted, and executed than women whose families had male heirs.

      P 180 Puritan ministers and authorities needed women to stop seeking their own satisfaction and goals and subsume themselves in helping their husband/father, and witchcraft persecution was one way to give graphic examples of what happens to self-aggrandizing women.

      P 181 “people who did not accept their place in the social order were the very embodiments of evil. Disorderly women posed a greater threat than disorderly men because the male/female relation provided the very model of and for all hierarchical relations…”

    2. Thanks for leaving the comment Jude…
      What you say is absolutely true.. Looks like oppression the world over follows similar spine-chilling patterns..
      And somehow, everytime, it is women who are at the receiveing end.


    3. with our pilgrim ancestors it was an excuse to kill a human that you don’t like.
      trough unfair trail that kills them even if they where human or not.
      and it evolved to a version of prair for those people

      but i think its just the famine and the cataclysmic nature events that triggers this kind of behaviour.

      even thou what i read here sounds like exactly like what people would do from 8.AD to the 18th.

      poor women T_T

    4. That patriarchy is the fundamental cause of wichcraft hysteria is old news, what woud help is to know what anyone can do about it.
      Passing more laws when the ones already in place are not enforced is an exercise in futility. Or nearly so, I guess it is better than not passing a law against this horrible practice, but it isn’t having any noticable effect. What can be done that will effect real change?

      I suggest the women of India might try making public the names of men who have caused pain sufferring and/or death to a woman ..whether over witchcraft charges or some other reason.. post those names on the internet, along with their address.. perhaps the resulting international public censure would help.

    5. May be, yes Charolette…

      But Indian rural reality is quite divorced from the world outside, which is one reason why they can carry on such brazen acts. If it were just patriarchy, it would be easier to handle. Here it acquires casteist overtones, which means something that has to be condemned is left uncondemned because the affected women belong to the oppressed (perhaps, voiceless) castes

      We should probably increase the law enforcing agencies.. and give local media attention..

    6. Meena I am very happy that you wrote about this. I remember in class when we were discussing a case of possession depicted in Bama’s Sangati, my professor had something similar to say about possession and “witch hunts” (not to conflate the two), and how Dalit women (and men?) use the state of being possessed as a space from which they could critique caste Hindu patriarchy.

      He was referring to instances of “possessed” Dalit women ridiculing/ critiquing caste landlords for their liaisons with various women etc, and this of course is more often than not followed by a very vehement back-lash in the form of witch hunts.

      Thanks for throwing more light on the issue.

    7. […] an article highlighted in a comment on this blog by Apu of Cubically Challenged (thank you, Apu!) Dangerous Dalit Women and Witch Hunters, modern witchhunts taking place in India are exposed, examining the persecution of women in some […]

    8. i just recently read maheswata devi’s story ‘bayen’ . and now saw ur post. maybe a coincidence.

    9. […] slow to happen. It is important to recognise that women are affected in ways beyond gender alone. Remember the witch-hunting of Dalit women? This was the result of a dangerous cocktail — a casteist, hierarchical society together with […]

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