The terms ‘medial trial’ and ‘media circus’ that are frequently invoked to describe what is happening to actor Rhea Chakraborty following the alleged suicide of her partner Sushant Singh Rajput, merely masks the reality of what our society is subjecting this young woman to. So let’s call it what it really is, shall we? This is a modern day witch hunt. The characters in this witch hunt are eerily similar to our early modern predecessors- the inquisitors or the big media houses who have “grilled” her to extract from her a confession, the panicked and agitated villagers or the audience of these media houses who found in Chakraborty a deviance that can only be explained as evil, and ordinary folk who have no stake in the matter but are eager to enjoy the show and watch a woman who makes their moral compass point anywhere but north being punished. We can all fit ourselves into one of these categories. Every time you share a ‘joke’ about Bengali women’s proclivity for black magic or pronounce moral judgments about someone you barely know or enjoy the torture she is being subjected to as dinner time television, you earn yourself a place in these hallowed circles.

Witch hunts of the pre-modern world targeted a plethora of women. From ‘old hags’ who were seen as a curse on fertility and often accused of killing pregnant women and young children to young women who were accused to have colluded with the Devil and cast malefic spells on people. These hunts and the following persecutions were the result of a deep seated fear of a ‘deviant’ woman. Old women who were past their reproductive age and lived alone were accused often by neighbours for their resentment of the young maidens who were still fertile. Their old age also made them more vulnerable and easier to target, extort a confession out of and then persecute. The young witches were different. Most were unmarried women, living without the ‘protection’ of fathers or husbands. In a patriarchal society such women continue to be an anathema. It was believed that deprived of ‘marital bliss’ they could be easily seduced by the Devil to become an instrument of his work.

Among the many young women persecuted for witchcraft in Venice for instance, a majority were accused of practicing love magic. A form of white magic, that could win the submission of an unwilling lover. Witch hunts and trials are vividly described in the literature of the period and it is shocking that we can still find parallels to these in our ‘progressive’ societies.

The recent images of the actor being hounded by media, microphones shoved into her face looked exactly like an inquisition of yore. Crowds of men and women surrounding the woman as her crimes were read out before she was burnt alive. Witch hunts in medieval and early modern Europe began very much like this one. A shocking occurrence in a village like an unexplained death of infants, crop failure or other such incidents sent the village folk into frenzy. The communal fears of an untoward incident harming one of their own had to be addressed and more often than not it took a woman’s life to put an end to this fear. The trajectory is shockingly similar to what happened to this young woman. The death of her partner shocked people, it was too simplistic to accept it as a suicide especially when the man in question lived with a woman whose intentions were suspected by his family. As new ‘facts’ were revealed and the situation got murkier Rhea Chakraborty was transformed from a woman mourning the loss of her partner to an evil witch who had led an innocent man astray by hooking him on to drugs and then swindling his money. In the misogynist eyes of our society she had committed the greatest sin of all, she had emasculated a man and for this she deserved to be punished.

In his book on witch-hunts in early modern Europe, Brian P. Levack argues that all witch hunts ‘involve the pursuit of a secret enemy of society’. The secret enemy here is much bigger than Rhea Chakraborty. This cannot be about one woman but about every woman who chose a life independent of the ideal feminine role of wife and mother. She is bound to be punished for such a transgression not only to allay our collective fears of such women but also to serve a warning to all other ‘witches’.

The jury is still out on whether or not Chakraborty has committed the crimes she has been accused of and the law will take its course, but she has already been pronounced guilty of casting a spell of subversion on the patriarchal order and for this she definitely stands punished.

Rohma Javed Rashid is an assistant professor at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia

Email: rohmajrashid@gmail.com


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