On September 11, Seeta*, 43, branded a witch, was thrown out of the village by her family. In August, her 29-year-old nephew had visited a bhopa, a faith healer, to find a solution to his parent’s ill-health and the problems he was facing with his career. “The bhopa told him that your kaki (aunt) is the reason why all of this is happening in your home. She is a dakan [witch] who is constantly bringing bad energy to your family.”
When her nephew returned he pulled Seeta by the hair, took her out of the house and questioned why she was doing this. “It took me some time to understand what was going on,” Seeta said, explaining that she was humiliated and tortured, before being thrown out of their home in a village in Bhilwara district.
The practice of labelling a woman as a witch and blaming her for misfortunes in the family are age-old, with a mass hunting in the Chhota Nagpur region in India recorded in the National Archives in 1857. “Witch hunting had been prevalent even in early modern Europe and colonial America. During the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, many women were put to death by the state in Salem witch trials (America) and Suffolk trials of Europe,” wrote Tanvi Yadav, a research scholar at the Central University of Rajasthan, in a paper in 2020.
The malpractice, called Dayan-Pratha (witch-hunting tradition) in Rajasthan, was still prevalent in several Indian states, with 13 of them reporting deaths in 2020 and 2021 – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Rajasthan has a law against witch hunting, passed in 2015, as do five other states, while Maharashtra and Karnataka have laws that, among other things, also encompass witch hunting. The first such law was passed in Bihar in 1999. In 2016, a Member of Parliament introduced a national bill in the Lok Sabha for the prevention of witch hunting, but no such bill has been passed yet.
As per National Crime Records Bureau, approximately 3,093 women were killed in India between 2001 and 2021, for which the motive was “witchcraft”.
“In Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, witches were held responsible for disasters like famines, floods, drought and epidemics resulting in massive deaths,” wrote Yadav in her 2020 paper.
In India, “the most common reasons to accuse and declare women witches are personal disputes or enmities, sexual desires towards women of the lower caste, coveting property of single women”, she added, explaining that Dalit women are often the target, with those from the upper castes attributing blame to witchcraft by Dalit women for their loss.
“It was a general practice in rural areas, in the event of epidemics or famines, causing the widespread death of animals and humans, that a woman from the most vulnerable section of society was accused of witchcraft and hunted down as a witch.”
Today, in many places across India, this tradition of women, usually from a vulnerable financial or social situation, characterised as a master in black-magic, and blamed for misfortunes, prolonged illnesses or death, dwindling financial or various other family issues, continues.
One of the reasons that the tradition continues is because of the belief in faith healers, to whom people go for all minor and major problems, especially in rural Rajasthan. Though this belief transcends religion and caste, experts said it is more common today in those from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
“I have been accompanying my father since I was 12. He was a bhopa as well. When he died, 10 years ago, I took over,” said Hemaram*, a 48-year-old Bhopa in Jodhpur district. “We have been doing the work of treating people by mantra [incantations] and religious practices for over a century now. Society needs us, values us and approaches us,” Hemaram, from the nomadic Gurjar community, told IndiaSpend.
“I must have controlled some 100 witches in the past 10 years. Sometimes we have to chain them and keep them in captivity when the Dayan [witch] starts opposing and getting powerful around Poornima (the full moon night).”
He said that once he treats these “witches”, the problems go away, and the women start behaving “normally”. “I haven’t received any complaints,” he said.
Hemaram, who has three daughters and a son, depends solely on his work as a bhopa for survival. He charges between Rs 1,000 and Rs 10,000, “depending on the nature of the case”, he said, and gets between four and six cases each month. “When a woman comes with a complaint, my wife also comes along – she’s an occasional bhopi.”
When asked about the law against the practice, Hemaram said that “the law is against the killing, so I treat the witches without killing them and I do so when their own relatives and neighbours need help. Our intentions are clean and we work only for our community and tradition which everybody doesn’t understand.”
However, the law illegalises any act or conduct in identifying, accusing or defaming a woman as a witch, and for harassing, harming or injuring a woman, whether mentally or physically or by damaging property. The act also has a clause for witch doctors, which prescribes punishment for anyone claiming to possess “supernatural or magical power to control or cure a witch”.
These traditions have a lasting impact on women and their families.
“In the experience of much of the world, such beliefs have resulted in graded violence against women accused of being witches. The violence has ranged from stigma and displacement to torture and brutal murders but in itself, ‘to be labelled a witch... is tantamount to being declared liable to be killed with impunity’,” summarises a review of literature on witch hunting by Partners for Law in Development.
Community boycotts, forced to leave ancestral land and house, impacts on children and grandchildren, are some of the most common impacts of the tradition, experts said.
“It’s been eight years, everybody else’s life has come back on track but mine is still stuck there,” said 27-year-old Leela Kumar Dosana, a resident of Thali Talav village in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan.
Leela was giving birth to a son when her mother, 73-year-old Keshaki Bai was branded a witch because of the suicide of Keshaki Bai’s nephew. Keshaki had found her dead nephew and told everyone, resulting in the villagers blaming her for the death.
The family and villagers tore Keshaki’s clothes, painted her face black, made her sit on a donkey and paraded her in the village. “What started at 11 am, went on till 5 in the evening. When the police arrived, mummy was found in the bushes, without clothes and the rest of my family was locked in the house,” said Dosana.
For Dosana, 2015 was the end of life as she knew it. Her husband did not even visit her or her son at the hospital and she was not allowed back home. Leela now lives with her mother and sister-in-law in the village, while her father and brother work in Mumbai.
Often, witch hunting becomes a pretext for sexual harassment.
In Chittorgarh district, a bhopa, who accused 32-year-old Bholi* of being a witch, also sexually molested her for around a week. Her mother-in-law had taken her to the faith healer when she and her husband did not have a son for five years after marriage. She had two daughters.
“The bhopa said that negative energy had impacted me.” He asked her to meet him the next day. While her mother-in-law waited outside, he addressed her as “dakan”, yelled at her to tell him why she was not giving her mother-in-law a grandson, and touched her breasts. He asked her to visit him every other day for a month.
“More than anything, I was scared about being labelled a witch, so I stayed quiet.”
The next time she visited him, he tried to penetrate her by finger; she resisted, and kept crying. “He said he needed to check what is the problem ‘down there’ that I cannot give birth to a boy.” Because she resisted, he would then tie her up and ask the entire village to beat her.
Then she told her husband, who told his mother that if she took Bholi to the faith healer again, he would leave the house along with Bholi. “That is when all of this ended but nobody knows what he did with me. We never dared to go to the police for the sake of the family’s respect,” Bholi said.
Stronger intervention needed
In 2021, Rukmi Bai, 50, filed a First Information Report with the police against neighbours who would call her a Dayan as two of their cows had died after Rukmi Bai visited their home. Rukmi Bai was forced to leave her house. The case is still pending in court, while Rukmi Bai lives with her brother and his family, and works as a domestic help.
Seeta, from Bhilwara, who was forced to leave her home, came back three months ago with the intervention of police and local non-profits. But her extended family and neighbours still taunt her every day. Her nephew was arrested by the police after a case was filed, but is currently out on bail and lives in the same house.
Rajendar Chaudhary, a constable at Mandal, Bhilwara, said that five of all the 800-odd cases registered in the district in 2022 were under the law against witch hunting. Chargesheets were filed in two of the cases, which are ongoing, while three women withdrew their cases, saying they had misunderstood the situation and people were not ill-treating them anymore.
We have reached out to the superintendent of police and district collector of Bhilwara via phone calls and messages and will update the story when they respond.
Between 2016 and 2022, seven women in Rajasthan died because of witch hunting.
Arvind Kumar Poswal, district collector, Chittorgarh, said, “since the tradition is age-old and the law was implemented seven years ago, it could take a little more time to uproot it”. He said the major challenge is the involvement of bhopas and the local belief system, which is stronger amongst those from the scheduled tribes. “These bhopas go to any extent and the communities believe in them, like during the Covid-19 pandemic, they were giving some random injections to people, without authentic check-ups and treatment.”
“Most of the time, those labelled as witches are widows, single, middle-aged or older women, since they seem to be easy prey,” said Shakuntala Pamecha, founder and director of the Rajsamand Jan Vikas Sansthan, who has been working on this issue across Rajasthan for about a decade. It is only over the past six to seven years that women have started to go to the police, she explained. “The introduction of the law is working but a stronger intervention and quicker decisions in the favour of the victims could do wonders,” to reduce and stop the practice.
She said her organisation has worked extensively with Action Aid since 2016 to sensitise officials and villagers about superstitions and harassment of women. She said, “during this process, we realised that even police fear these bhopas since the communities have strong belief in them.”
A Jaipur-based independent activist Tribhuwan, who goes by one name, agrees that the “only way” to get rid of this tradition is by sensitising the communities with the police and local non-profits. “We have to work in the direction of increasing the belief people have in the law over their belief of fake healers.”
We reached out to Mamta Bhupesh, Women and Child Development minister of Rajasthan, via call, message and email. The minister first denied comment, and then asked we call back and did not respond. We will update the story when we receive a response. We also reached out to Shreya Guha, the chief secretary of the Women And Child Development department, via email, and will update the story when we receive a response.
*Names of women have been changed on request.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.