Amidst Covid Rajasthan villagers hunt ‘witches’

On the 4th of October, 2021, an attempt was made to kill a woman in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan by calling her a ‘witch’. The victim is a resident of Ulela village of Jahazpur block. This is not the first incident of women being accused of being ‘witches’ and even killed in Bhilwara district, nor will it probably be the last.

According to local social workers, this is the fourth incident in the district in the last two months in which a woman has been declared a ‘witch’ and beaten up. Most of the incidents of making women out to be ‘witches’ in Rajasthan are in Bhilwara district itself.

According to the complaint lodged with the Jahazpur police station, a person named Foru from the same village started beating the victim Badam Devi (55) calling her a ‘witch’. Foru believes that his wife’s health is deteriorating due to Badam Devi being a ‘witch’ and she enters his wife’s body.

To save her life, Badam Devi ran away from the fields and came to her house, but the accused reached there with an axe in his hand. To escape from Foru, Badam ran again to the fields and fell into a kutcha well. Earlier, Foru had broken her hand with the stick of the axe. After falling into the well, Badam Devi somehow held a stone.

She was pulled out after several hours by the villagers working in the fields, alerted by the noise, who lifted her with the help of cots. Injured Badam Devi was admitted to Jahazpur CHC, where she suffered a fracture in one hand and serious injuries were found at various places on her body.

The police have registered a complaint under IPC sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 323 ( intentional hurt ) and 307 (wilful act likely to cause death). Apart from this, a case has been registered under sections 3 and 4 of the Rajasthan Prevention of Witch Harassment Act.

CI Rajkumar Nayak of Jahazpur police station said that the police arrested the accused and presented him in the court from where he got bail. The woman is currently at her home.

Badam is lucky in this case, as the complaint has  been registered under the Rajasthan Prevention of Witch Harassment Act because in most cases the police register such cases under IPC sections, which are more lenient.

Covid Response Watch spoke to Tara Ahluwalia, a social worker living in Bhilwara and working since 1980 for the eradication of witchcraft.

“ After a long struggle, we were successful in getting the state government to enact a law, but till now the understanding of the police and the common people at the ground level has not been made according to the law. This is the reason why the police register cases of witchcraft under normal sections. This does not give justice to the victims. The accused roam freely in the open” she says.

No one was punished in 6 years

COVID Response Watch Logo“It has been 6 years since the Rajasthan Witch Harassment Prevention Act came into existence. If convicted under the law, there is a provision of imprisonment for one to five years and fine of 50 thousand rupees, but ironically, till date no accused has been punished through this. Since 2015, more than 280 cases of witch-making have come to the fore. Around 84 cases have been registered in Bhilwara district alone. After the registration of the case, the accused roam out on bail. With this, the rest of the village people also get the impetus to declare women as ‘witches’ Ahluwalia adds.

At the same time, she says, “The law has not been implemented effectively at the ground level. That is why till date no one has been punished. In rural areas, the police have little knowledge of the law. That is why they register a complaint by making the cases of witch torture out to be just a case of quarrel”.

Rakesh Sharma , a social worker from Bhilwara, associated with the Dalit , Adivasi and Nomadic Rights campaign in Rajasthan, also agrees with Ahluwalia.

“Social prejudice makes a woman a ‘witch’. That is why it is the responsibility of the law to punish the guilty. Unfortunately this is not happening. Had the police done their job properly, hundreds of victims would have been rehabilitated and the guilty would have been jailed” he says.

Retired Professor Rajiv Gupta from the Department of Sociology , University of Rajasthan , Jaipur explains in detail about the process and purpose of declaring a witch.

“Witch-making works to create fear among people by making up stories. There are many elements of fear and insecurity involved. This is the reason why even the people of the society are hesitant to talk to the victim. This fear and insecurity passes on to the next generation as well ,” he says.

Lonely, elderly and Dalit women become targets

The main targets of this social evil are the destitute, elderly or Dalit women. More than half of the cases registered are also related to land grab incidents.

Bhanwar Meghvanshi, a social worker from Bhilwara, says, “ The social structure of villages in our country is very complex. Sometimes the family members do not keep their elderly parents with them. Taking advantage of this, other people in the family or other families take advantage of their loneliness and weakness. Even today superstition is very high in rural society and women are the easiest targets. Since she is destitute and does not have the financial capacity to fight the case. That is why they are declared a ‘witch’ and socially boycotted and there is often a conspiracy to grab their land. ”

Journey from stigma to social exclusion and death

The women victims accused of being ‘witches’ are living in a very bad condition. Due to being declared a ‘witch’ in the village, they have to live outside the village. Hundreds of women have been socially boycotted.

All this stress has a profound effect on the mental and physical health of the women. Chandi Bai was one such woman. Carrying the burden of being a ‘witch’ for life, she died a few months ago.

About 20 years ago, she was declared a ‘witch’ in her village Chhipapur Pal. The village of Chandi Devi is in Kotri block, about 65 km from Bhilwara. Chandi was living with Tara Ahluwalia in their house for a long time.

Tara believes the stigma of being a ‘witch’ was the reason for her death. She says that Chandi wanted to get rid of that stigma throughout her life, but the people of the village never accepted her as a normal woman.

“Disturbed by the daily taunts, she came to me. She did everything to get back in the society and family, but could not get rid of the stigma” she says.

The Covid period

The Covid period has been the worst period for women battling the stigma of being a ‘witch’. The lockdown of March 2020, which placed a lot of restrictions, had its deep impact on rural areas as well. Even earlier, those accused of being ‘witches’ were forced to live outside the village or were socially excluded. As a result no one went to meet or talk to them. This isolation worsened during the lockdown.

Access to social security schemes are also less for such women. That is why they have to deal with the problem of even obtaining state-provided rations. Rakesh says that transportation was closed due to the lockdown and no help from outside could reach such women and their families.

While there has been no research study on the effect of Covid on women ostracised for being ‘witches’ there is little doubt that the loneliness and economic condition of these women has only worsened.

Madhav Sharma is a journalist based in Jaipur, Rajasthan

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