Every day, at lunchtime, Thakur Munda and his wife Chamri Devi would take turns collecting firewood from the jungle neighbouring Baroti, their village in Ranchi district’s Namkum block, 15 km from the Jharkhand state secretariat.
On September 24, 2019, Munda had just finished his meal and was getting ready to leave for the woods, when two of his nephews showed up. Where was his wife? they asked. Munda led the family to the spot where he had last seen Devi, but she was nowhere in sight. He traced the route they used to take from their home to the jungle, but she seemed to have disappeared.
Sumi Pahan, the couple’s married daughter who was visiting her parents, joined the search. “Suddenly, our eyes fell on a bloody trail ‒ as though someone had dragged a bloodied object along the ground,” said Pahan. Where the trail ended, at the bottom of a slope, lay Devi’s lifeless body.
Investigators later found that she had been hacked to death by Munda’s nephews when Munda had gone home for lunch. Munda’s 15-year-old grand-nephew had been ill for a long time and a local ojha, or witch doctor, had blamed Devi for casting an “evil eye” on him. The boy’s father and uncle had plotted to murder her.
Murder, driven by the belief in black magic, is common in Jharkhand. In 2019, the state reported 27 deaths related to allegations of witchcraft, as per data provided by the state police, a rise from 18 similar deaths in 2018, according to recently-released National Crime Records Bureau data.
Jharkhand leads the country in cases of witch-hunting, the data showed. This is the practice of first branding women as “witches” and then punishing them with violence, often fatally. Since 2014, 173 people have been killed in Jharkhand after being labelled as witches, data showed. In 2017, 19 of the 73 people ‒ 26% ‒ killed across India on suspicion of practising witchcraft were in Jharkhand, NCRB data reported.
In 2018, Jharkhand saw 18 of the total 63 “witchcraft” deaths reported across the country, nearly one-third of all deaths. It was followed by Madhya Pradesh, a state with more than double its population, which recorded 10 deaths.
Police officials, speaking informally to IndiaSpend, blamed these attacks on the state’s poor literacy rates – 70.3%, against the national average of 75.4% – and the belief in black magic.
But there is another reason, we found in our investigations across Jharkhand’s Ranchi and Gumla districts a crippling shortage of quality, accessible healthcare in a predominantly rural state. Up to 75.95% of the state’s people live in the countryside. Since public health facilities are situated in distant towns and transport facilities are limited, people in distress find it easier to seek help from quacks and ojhas.
Poor healthcare, low literacy and deeply entrenched beliefs in the healing power of the ojhas – these are the reasons why Jharkhand continues to report a high number of witch-hunt deaths, we learned from speaking with villagers, law enforcement officers and NGO workers.
It is not unusual to label women witches and blame them for all sorts of misfortunes, big and small – a villager’s ill-health, someone falling off a cycle, or even crop failure, villagers said. It had not taken Sumi Pahan long to figure out why her mother was killed. Her father’s grand-nephew had been ailing for some time and the family had been worried. “He was suffering from fever and fatigue and to cure him his family had got home an ojha,” said Pahan. An ojha or a bhagat offers “remedies” for all kinds of disease and misfortunes in rural Jharkhand. And quite often, his role goes beyond that given the influence he has on people.
Three days before Chamri Devi’s murder, an ojha had “divined” the reasons for the boy’s illness. He had declared Devi a “witch” who had made the boy sick with her “powers”, villagers later told the bereaved family. Two days later, Pahan’s uncle and the boy’s father, Fauda Munda, his two sons and a friend, allegedly killed Devi.
This kind of blind reliance on the ojha’s “powers” is common across many regions of Jharkhand. “That’s how we all deal with our illnesses,” said Pahan. “These ojhas give us remedies for illnesses, but they also help us fight different problems in our lives.”
More than 80 km away, in western Jharkhand’s Gumla district, Madwari Oraon, the pradhan or head of Nagar Siskari village, affirmed this: “[Even] if someone falls off the cycle, they will reach out to an ojha because they fear that the fall was caused by bad luck.”
The ojha, almost always a man, normally prescribes a “remedy” consisting of local herbs, Oraon said. “But many times, he will simply blame the problem on an evil spell and claim a hefty fee,” he said. If a family cannot afford the fee, the ojha asks for payment in kind – a chicken or a goat. When he can find no “solution”, the ojha usually declares someone a “witch” and the cause of trouble, Oraon said.
Oraon should know.
On July 20, 2019, four people were lynched in Madwari Oraon’s village over fears of witchcraft. A 45-year-old alcoholic, Bolo Oraon, had died and an ojha had pinned the blame on the four, who were killed in a common community area just behind Oraon’s home.
In Nagar Siskari, as in other parts of rural Jharkhand, the ojha’s exalted position in society is tied to poor healthcare services. Located deep inside the Sisai block of Gumla district, the nearest medical care is 15 km from Nagar Siskari. Reaching there is a travail that most people avoid, according to Oraon.
“There is no public transport available,” said Malti Kumari, a Sisai-based activist working with a local organisation called Samvaad, who has been working to raise awareness about issues like witch-hunting and trafficking. “One has to have a private vehicle to get there, which few have, or call for an auto from Sisai, and few can afford that.”
The closest help is a “jhola-chhap [quack] doctor,” said Kumari. “These are locals who have, in the past, served as compounders to private doctors,” she explained. “They come in contact with the locals and gain their trust. After a while, they capitalise on this by going around villages, handing out medicines for common illnesses.”
But when the situation is beyond the quack, people turn to the ojha.
State’s health spends
Jharkhand’s poor record in providing healthcare to its citizens provides the context to these struggles. Only 4.82% of the state’s expenditure goes to healthcare, according to the National Health Profile of 2018, among the lowest nationally. On average in India, 11,082 people are served by one government allopathic doctor, but in Jharkhand, that figure is 18,518. This is an improvement only on the averages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as per the profile.
Also there is only one bed in a government hospital for an average of 3,079 people in Jharkhand, among the lowest availability in the country compared to the national average of 1,844.
This gap in the supply of and demand for healthcare has repercussions on the state’s public health figures. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-’16, the state recorded one of the lowest instances of institutional births – 61.9%, against the national average of 78.9%. It also has the 14th highest under-five mortality rate in India, at 29 deaths per 1,000 live births.
It is this vacuum that jhola-chhap and witchcraft doctors fill.
No one bothered to medically investigate the reasons for Bolo Oraon’s death in Nagar Siskari. “The fact was that Oraon could have just passed away in his sleep,” said pradhan Madwari Oraon. “Villagers, however, decided to approach an ojha because people here thought only he could reveal the ‘real’ reason for the death.”
This belief in faith healers, and not medical science, can also be traced to poor literacy, said state bureaucrats who spoke to IndiaSpend. “In Jharkhand, traditionally, many communities have depended on healers to cure them of illnesses,” said a senior police official, posted in the Jharkhand police’ headquarters in Ranchi. “This healer would be someone with great knowledge of the community’s customs and its faith and hence, would be highly respected.” But this dependence also allows witch doctors to exploit gullible villagers for financial gains, he added.
In 2001, to deal with witch-hunting, the state Assembly passed the Prevention of Witch (DAAIN) Practices Act, which empowers the state to punish those who brand women as witches, referred to as daain in Hindi.
Section 3 of the Act prescribes imprisonment of up to three months and/or Rs 1,000 as fine, for “whoever identifies any person as Witch”. For anyone found causing “any kind of physical or mental torture to any person by identifying her as a Witch (Daain), whether deliberately or otherwise,” the act stipulates Rs 2,000 as fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months.
The Act also tried to bring under its ambit the operations of the village ojha by stipulating imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000 for anyone who claims to heal so-called witches.
But not many are convinced about the law’s deterrent. On the Jharkhand Police website, a note appended with the Act explains its inadequacies: “Clearly, section 3, 4, 5 and 6...are woefully inadequate for deterring or punishing those responsible for branding and persecuting women as witches...Despite the presence of this Act, people described as witches have been persecuted, tortured and murdered and the practice continues today.”
“Hundreds” of people, often older women, are branded as witches every year, the note said.
In response to IndiaSpend’s questions, Jharkhand Police issued a statement, insisting that police officers were monitoring the implementation of the act carefully. “The state Criminal Investigation Department has issued firm instructions to police officials across the state to publicise the Act as well as other strict steps to curb such cases,” the statement said. “We are also monitoring the pending witch-hunting cases closely.”
Not many in rural Jharkhand know that attacking or killing a woman branded as a witch attracts the same punishment as similar violence in other contexts, said Kanaklata Kumari, programme officer at the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, a Ranchi-based all-women NGO that tries to dispel myths of witchcraft and helps its victims.
“We have seen cases of witch-hunting where the accused in such cases tell us that they committed the crime thinking that the punishment was only six months and hence, they will get off lightly,” she said, pointing to the belief that general laws relating to murder and assault do not apply to “witches”.
Chamri Devi’s death shattered the Munda family in more ways than one. Thakur, at 60, could not run the household so Pahan’s three younger sisters had to take charge. One of them, Gangi, could not continue her studies after high school. “We are three sisters – one has to take care of the cattle, the other two have to help with the farm and the household,” she said.
The family grows paddy, some pulses and corn, but this is only enough for their own use. The family also takes on temporary work as labourers to run the household. Gangi earns Rs 200-Rs 300 a day stitching clothes and bags.
Then there were the insinuations about Chamri Devi that continued even after her death. “Each time we step out of the house, someone would pass a comment – where could we be going, who were we meeting,” said Gangi.
These taunts upset the family so much they wanted to leave the village, said Pahan. The villagers even questioned the need for a police investigation. “They keep saying that she deserved the punishment,” she said. “In fact, the family of the accused told us to pay to get him out of jail and taunted us saying he would be out in three years anyway.”
Pahan and her family realised that they would have to somehow tackle the crisis. And they did what came to them naturally: They got together with Fauda Munda’s family and approached another ojha for a decision. “To find out if my mother was a witch or not,” said Gangi, looking into the distance.
The families rented vehicles for Rs 2,200, took some other villagers along as witnesses, and visited an ojha who demanded Rs 5,000 for his services. It “worked”: The ojha chastised Fauda’s family for killing an innocent. “He kept telling them that they had got the wrong person,” Pahan recalled.
The Munda family had finally found closure.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.