All of us came across the witch figure initially in children’s literature, cartoons and movies. In my childhood, I was exposed to two kinds of witches, the western and the Indian one. The western one invariably dressed up in a pointy hat, had a long nose and a grotesque looking pimple or mark on their scrawny faces. And do not forget the trademark broomsticks. These witches were not all evil and in some cases they were actually nice.
And then I remember the Indian ones who were mostly evil crones, always plotting against the hero of the story. However, as many of you might know, the problem of the evil old witch wasn’t just contained to the story books. In fact the negative portrayal of witches in the story books came from the real life witch hunts which took place in the Europe and America from the fifteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
While witch trials have now been relegated to a past that no one wants to remember, many places in India still witness witch trials in which most of the witches on trial are women. According to national crime records bureau, between 2000 and 2012, 2097 murders were committed as part of Witch hunting.
Major Indian tribes like Mundas and Hos derive their rituals and practices from the same myths and the character of the witch is a prominent one in these stories. The story goes that the Singbonga , meaning the Supreme One ordered the killing of his wife because he was convinced that she was a witch and had plotted to kill his son, borne by another wife of his. Singbonga asked his brother to kill the wife and the brother Baranda made sure that she was a witch by consulting two witch-hunters before killing her. So this is the first instance of a witch and witch hunting in these tribal stories and scholars say that this story was a later addition to the original collection of myths. However, what matters is that the story exists and even today women are threatened and even killed by this paranoia about a witch figure. Though the story exists only as a tribal myth, these tribes are the largest ones in India and they exert their influence on to the neighboring non tribal villages – thus spreading the culture of witch hunting. The fact that 11 Indian states, including the ones with maximum populations have enacted a law against Witch hunting shows the severity and reach of the problem.
Also,it is extremely interesting that most often, some particular kinds of women are targeted in these witch hunts. It is seen that older women, widowed or single women, sometimes childless women etc are at a huge risk of being labeled as witches as compared to other women. It is obvious that that these are women who do not fit into the traditional roles of the mother or the wife and thus their position in a tribal society is precarious. Many a times, these women inherit their husband’s or father’s lands or income and thus become the target of greedy relatives looking for a chance to eliminate the woman in question. In other, less common cases, the targeted women are actually those who support themselves and are financially better off than most of the village.
Why only women is a question that most scholars have never been able to fully answer. While misogyny is definitely part of the problem, it is surely not the whole reason. The patriarchal power structure of most tribal communities could be another reason. In the Munda community, there are three leaders- the political leader called the Munda, the religious leader called Devri, and the Witch hunter called the Ojha. Needless to say, all these positions are held by men and women sometimes don’t even have land rights in these tribes. So it is not a coincidence that the matrilineal tribes of Khasis and Gharos where women have sizable administrative power, has never had a witch hunt or a wizard hunt in all their history. Tribal societies have somehow gained a reputation for being more women friendly – but clearly they are not.
Drawing a very real picture of the issue is Mahasweta Devi’s horrifying, yet powerful short story of a witch hunt titled Daini or the Witch.
This is another of those anachronous, but ironically urgent issues that India shouldn’t forget to tackle amidst all the hungama of ‘development’.