Many tribal groups in India believe in witchcraft and sorcery. For example, the Baiga—a tribe with around 200,000 members that live in central India in what is now Madhya Pradesh state—worship an ever-changing pantheon of deities, which are roughly divided into those that are good and those that are evil and includes some Hindu gods. Their religious practitioners include priests that presides over agricultural and anti-earthquake rituals; medicine men who use magic to cure diseases; and clairvoyants who communicate with spirts through dreams and visions. Disease is believed to be caused by witchcraft and evil spirts. The best cure for sexually-transmitted diseases is believed to be sex with a virgin.

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In November 2014, the BBC reported: “Twenty-one human skulls have been found in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, leading to fears that they could be related to human sacrifice or "black magic" rituals. The skulls were found under a bridge on the Kushbhadra river along with bones, dry flowers and vermillion powder. Police are questioning a local tantrik, or so-called witch doctor. Report said the tantrik told police he had been stealing skulls from a graveyard for the past five years. He is reported to have said that the skulls and bones were dumped under the bridge by his assistant's son who did not approve of his father's work. The assistant died on 13 November. Local people say the presence of dry flowers and vermillion powder - used extensively in Hindu religious rituals and regarded as a symbol of fertility - near the skulls suggest they could be related to witchcraft. "Black magic" is often practised in poorer parts of India - many people believe it can help childless women to bear children, cure illnesses and produce more rainfall. [Source: BBC, November 24, 2014]

Santal Religion and Witchcraft

The Santals—who live mostly in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa— have animist beliefs which involve idols and evil spirits. The Santal believe in a pantheon of spirits known as bongas, many of which are linked to certain clans. Disease and ill fortune are often blamed on sorcery. Accusations of witchcraft are fairly common. In the old days people accused of witchcraft were often killed. These days they are often forced into a settlement decided by a village council. Healers often use their own blood in healing ceremonies. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Santal religion is one of the most studied tribal religions. According to the 1991 census, however, only 23,645 people listed Santal as their religious belief out of a population estimated at 4.2 million..According to the Santal religion, the supreme deity, who ultimately controls the entire universe, is Thakurji. The weight of belief, however, falls on a court of spirits (bonga ), who handle different aspects of the world and who must be placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and subclan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease, and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of the Santal village is a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. [Source: Library of Congress]

The most important spirit is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru's consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove). A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involves petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.

Attacks on Witches in Eastern India

A number of Indian women have been being ostracized, tortured and even murdered by their neighbors, friends and relatives after being accused of being witches by local oija (traditional healers). Unofficial estimates say at least 200 women are killed as witches across India each year. Most cases are not reported because they are carried by local communities. Even so between 1990 and 1997, 409 so-called witch killings were reported in southern Bihar alone.

Terrence McCoy wrote in in the Washington Post: “In places where superstition and vigilantism overlap and small rumors can turn deadly, nearly 2,100 people accused of witchcraft have been killed between 2000 and 2012, according to crime records gathered by the Indian newspaper Mint. Others placed the number at 2,500; others higher still. “Like the proverbial tip of a very deep iceberg, available data hides much of the reality of a problem that is deeply ingrained in society,” according to New Delhi-based Partners for Law in Development. “It is only the most gruesome cases that are reported — most cases of witch-hunting go unreported and unrecorded.” [Source: Terrence McCoy, Washington Post, July 21, 2014 /~/]

“It’s an issue that despite its prevalence is rarely covered outside of India, where it’s almost weekly newspaper fodder.” In July 2014, “in Chandrapur, one man was lynched and his “woman accomplice thrashed by a mob for practicing black magic,” reported the Times of India, which said the man “was caught red-handed by the mob of over 500 villagers.” Another woman accused of witchcraft was grabbed by relatives carrying “traditional weapons” and beaten to death. In 2013, in Jharkhand, a 50-year-old woman and her daughter were hacked to death after they were accused of practicing witchcraft. /~/

Most attacks occur in tribal areas in Bihar, Jharkhand (a new state carved out of the southern part of Bihar in 2000), West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Bihar has passed laws in which people who practice witchcraft or accuse others of being witches or participate in torture can be jailed for a year without bail or fined. McCoy wrote: “If there is a state most susceptible to witchcraft killings, it’s the eastern state of Jharkhand, a land pervaded by dense forest and tribes. In 2013, 54 witchcraft-accused women were killed there, reported the News Minute, the highest rate in the country. Despite local legislation to try and clamp down on the murders – no national law exists that addresses witchcraft killings – they have continued if not increased. And patterns there are worth examining to understand how the horror unfolds. [Source: Terrence McCoy, Washington Post, July 21, 2014]

Cases of Attacks on Witches

One Indian newspaper ran a story about a 22-year-old pregnant village woman who was stripped, tortures and burned to death by her fellow villagers because a soothsayers claimed he learned from a vision that woman was a jewel thief. In 2005, Pusanidevi Manjhi was branded a witch and tortured for four days by a powerful landowning family in the village Palani, in the Jharkhand state of India. In 2014, Debjani Bora, a javelin thrower who has won several gold medals, told the BBC how she was tied up and severely beaten after being branded a witch in her village in the northeastern state of Assam.

After her son died in 1996, Karuna Devi, who lives in Bholadi village in Bihar, was accused of being a witch by her brother-in-law. She was later cleared of the charge by a witch doctor in the Hindu holy city of Gaya. In 1995, Chhutni Mahatani also from Bholadi was tortured by her brother-in-law after a child fell ill in her village. [Source: Washington Post]

In the village of Choura in Bihar, an oija told villagers that a witch had killed a man by casting a spell on him, and then accused a local woman of being the witch. The woman survived the ordeal and later told Reuter, "They locked me in the room where the corpse lay and asked me either make it alive or eat its flesh. I fainted there, then they took me out of the room and forced me to eat human excrement instead as punishment. [Source: Reuters]

In the village of Chaibasa, Bihar, a 38-year-old member of the Ho tribe was accused of being a witch by her brother. She told the Independent people started coming to her house and taking her stiff. "They said, 'You've killed your husband, now you're trying to rule over us.'...My brother next door accused men being a dajan. The neighbor on the other side joined in. They took their accusation to the munda, the headman." Missionaries intervened before anything happened.

In October 2014, the BBC reported: “An Indian woman has been killed by relatives who suspected her of practising witchcraft, police said. They said Dukalheen Bai died after she was stripped, beaten and tortured for hours by her brother-in-law Nakul Patel and several other family members. Mr Patel is believed to have accused her of making his son ill by practising witchcraft on him. The incident took place in Bemetara district in the central state of Chhattisgarh. Mr Patel is among 10 people, including five women, have arrested in connection with the killing. He is not thought to have made any public comment as yet. "My mother was beaten up very badly. She kept screaming but the entire village just watched. I protested, but couldn't save my mother," Dukalheen Bai's son Ashok Patel told BBC Hindi.[Source: BBC, October 7, 2014]

Terrence McCoy wrote in the Washington Post: “If it began like the others, the first sign that Saraswati Devi would be murdered was an accusation delivered to a shaman. Perhaps she had offended someone. Perhaps someone had fallen sick and had wondered why. Perhaps a community well had suddenly dried and someone needed blaming. Perhaps they chose her because Devi was lower caste, because she was a woman, and because they’d probably get away with it. The killers came for her on Saturday. Two of her sons tried to save her, but couldn’t and were beaten. Their punishment wouldn’t match Devi’s. Before the 14 villagers inflicted injuries so severe they would claim her life, they “forced her to consume human excreta,” police told the Hindustan Times. [Source: Terrence McCoy, Washington Post, July 21, 2014]

Witchcraft Accusation Process

One nun who worked in southern Bihar told the Independent, once a woman has been named as a witch, a meeting is convened at a big tree. The person is publicly accused. Sometimes they are stripped, and forced to eat excrement or killed then and there. Others are condemned and killed later. Victims have been slashed, stoned and beaten to death, often by a mob. The nun said, "The villagers believe they are doing a great thing. They get drunk, then do to the person whatever they can think of. The victim is cut into pieces, beaten or crushed."

Terrence McCoy wrote in in the Washington Post: “According to Mint, an Indian publication which has written extensively on the subject, a witch is identified through various methods. The person who suspects witchcraft will often consult a witch doctor called an “ojha.” The witch doctor, who uses medicinal herbs, in part learned their skills to counter the darker powers of the witches, called “daayan.” [Source: Terrence McCoy, Washington Post, July 21, 2014 /~/]

“The ojha then goes about the business of sussing out the witch. This involves incantations, Mint reports, and possibly the branches of a sal tree. The ojha writes the names of all those suspected of witchcraft onto the branches of the tree, and the name that’s on the branch that withers is condemned as a witch. Other times, rice is wrapped in cloth emblazoned with names. Then the rice is placed inside a nest of white ants. Whichever bag the ants eat out identifies the witch. Another method: potions. One Indian shaman in 2011 forced 30 women to drink a potion to prove they weren’t witches. The concoction was made out of a poisonous herb, all women fell ill, and the shaman was arrested.” /~/

“After a witch is chosen, they are either forced to do unspeakable things or tortured. “In many reported cases recently, women who are branded as witches were made to walk naked through the village, were gang-raped, had their breasts cut off, teeth broken or heads tonsured, apart from being ostracized from their village,” reported Live Mint. They “were forced to swallow urine and human feces, to eat human flesh, or drink the blood of a chicken.” /~/

Reasons of Witchcraft Killings

The oijas are often paid by local people to make the accusations as a way of settling a score or trying to take the property of the victim. The nun in southern Bihar told the Independent that most witch killings follow a pattern: "When something calamitous happened the local priest, the oija, goes into a trance and asks which spirit caused it and then which person the spirit was acting through. Usually the victim is a widow or a handicapped person or someone whose land is coveted by someone else. In more than 60 percent of the cases relatives hope to grab land from the victim."

Terrence McCoy wrote in in the Washington Post: “The forces driving the killings, which occur predominantly in Indian states with large tribal populations, are as much cultural as they are economic and caste-based, experts said. While the easiest explanation is that angered mobs confuse a sudden illness or crop failure with witchcraft and exact their revenge, it’s rarely that simple. Much more often, it isn’t superstition but gender and class discrimination. Those accused of sorcery often come from similar backgrounds: female, poor and of a low caste. [Source: Terrence McCoy, Washington Post, July 21, 2014 /~/]

“Witch-hunting is essentially a legacy of violence against women in our society,” wrote Rakesh Singh of the Indian Social Institute. “For almost invariably, it is [low caste] women, who are branded as witches. By punishing those who are seen as vile and wild, oppressors perhaps want to send a not-so-subtle message to women: docility and domesticity get rewarded; anything else gets punished.” /~/

The veil of superstition, others said, only hides the true motive behind the killings. “Superstition is only an excuse,” Pooja Singhal Purwar, a social welfare official, told The Washington Post’s Rama Lakshmi in 2005. “Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes, it is used to punish women who question social norms.” /~/

A UN official said in 2013 that practices such as lynching women branded as witches persisted in India partly because they were socially sanctioned and not treated as crimes by police. Government statistics show there were 160 cases of murder linked to witch hunts in 2013, and 119 the previous year. [Source: Damien Gayle, Daily MailOnline, August 28, 2014 ]

“Witches” Chop off the Hands of an Indian Man

In August 2014, a mob of “witches” chopped off the hands of an Indian man and burned him alive in front of his son after he went to see them to treat a medical problem and they feared he was a rival wizard. Damien Gayle wrote in Daily MailOnline, “A coven of witches chopped off a man's arms and burned him alive when he asked them for help treating his sick 10-year-old son, police say. Brijlal Chopra's wife and son told police they watched helplessly as he was stabbed repeatedly and hacked with axes before the witches set him on fire with kerosene-soaked rags. 'They were laughing and dancing around his body to music while he screamed in agony. In the end there was just a pile of ashes left,' said a police spokesman in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, the closest city to where the ritual slaying happened. [Source: Damien Gayle, Daily MailOnline, August 28, 2014 ]

“Mr Chopra had sought out the local witchdoctor - known only as Parvati - for treatment for his 10-year-old son, said police. But as soon as the family reached her commune, Parvati branded Mr Chopra a rival sorcerer and ordered her disciples to kill him. His wife Sushma later told police: 'It was sickening. They surrounded him and took turns to stab him with tridents and hack at him with an axe. 'They cut off his hands because they said that was where his power was. 'My husband told them he had no powers, no witchcraft, but they wouldn't listen. The more he screamed, the more they sang and the more they laughed. 'Then to make sure his power was gone for ever, they said they had to burn him. This was in front of our son who was terrified.' Parvati and her followers allowed Sushma and her son to leave, but vowed to curse them if they told anyone. The pair ignored the threats and traveled all night to the nearest police station where they reported the killing.

“Police say the witch and six of her followers are in custody awaiting trial for murder. 'We confiscated literature on witchcraft, as well as axes and tridents from the scene. We have also recovered some ashes for forensic tests,' said a police spokesman. The killing comes amid growing hysteria over witchcraft in India. Earlier this month a 35-year-old woman in Bihar was dragged from her home, beaten, and forced to eat feces after she was blamed for casting a spell which caused the death of a neighbor. Just a week before that, 10 people were arrested in Odisha over the torture of a 60-year-old woman who was left in a critical condition after she was blamed for the death of an 18-year-old boy. Medical records showed he in fact died of malaria.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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