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Witch-Hunting: A Barbaric Practice that Threatens Women Even Today

If a man has put a spell upon another man and has not justified himself, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river. He shall plunge into the holy river, and if the holy river overcomes him, he who wove the spell upon him shall take to himself his house. If the holy river makes that man to be innocent, and has saved him, he who laid the spell upon him shall be put to death. He who plunged into the holy river shall take to himself the house of him who wove the spell upon him. - The Code of Hammurabi (2000 B.C.)

The initiation of witch-hunting
The existence of witch-hunting can be traced as far back as the ancient period. 331 B.C. saw the mass execution of 170 women after being labelled witches in Rome. This practice rampantly continued until late 4th century A.D. and did not wane until the introduction of Christianity in the Roman State.[i]

Promulgated by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 81 BCE, the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis' became a vital source of legislation on witch-hunting for medieval and early modern Europe, banning the possession of drugs, magical books, and other sorcerous practices.

During the middle ages, the inhumane rituals of witch-hunting spread across other European countries as well. But the situation reached its absolute worst during the early Modern period with the incipience of witch trials'. These trials generally involved burning people alive (80% being women) for the alleged offence of witchcraft. The 17th century saw the spread of witch-hunting like wildfire, with people associating women to satanic and diabolical practices and persecuting them. However, the situation finally improved during 18th century as the last known cases of witch-hunting in Europe were seen.

Modern witch-hunts
Lamentably, the archaic practice propagated to other parts of the world including Africa and Asia after the 18th century. It still exists in superstitious societies that believe in the idea of sorcery. Despite hard works of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Organisation (UNO), instances of lynching and burning of the so-called witches' still occur.

Modern witch-hunts are mostly restricted to the economically weak and marginalized sections of societies and often even see the involvement of one's own family members who indulge in these in the name of social cleansing[ii]. In the past three centuries, Sub-Saharan Africa has not just witnessed women but also children as victims of witch-hunts.

The exercise of attributing all kinds of misfortunes including the famines, occurring of warts, sightings of supernatural entities and more to the presence of witches, has killed several in the process. Nepal is another country where witch-hunting takes place commonly, with the targets mostly being lower-caste women[iii].

Lack of education, awareness, literacy, existence of a patriarchal society, superstitious beliefs and the caste system have exacerbated the violence resulting from this ghastly crime.
Today, Saudi Arabia is the only Asian country where witch-hunting is an offence punishable by death.

The hauntings of witch-hunting in India
Despite being a nefarious practice of the early Modern period, India is deplorably one of the few countries around the world that still witnesses horrid cases of witch-hunting. Women are beaten, tortured, burned, raped, and murdered, all in the name of witch-hunts. On July 20th, 2019, four elderly people including two women were accused of engaging in witchcraft and lynched by a mob in Gumla district of Jharkhand.

As per police data, 123 people have died in Jharkhand between 2016 and 2019 at the hands of mobs. 134 people were killed nation-wide on the pretext of practicing black magic in 2016 while 2500 people have lost their lives due to witch-hunting between 2000 and 2016.[iv] Rajasthan saw several such cases in 2017, with the murder of a 40-year-old woman Kanya Devi who was beaten to death after being accused of practicing black magic taking the centre-stage.

Three Gujarati women who are currently staying at an NGO narrated their heart-wrenching story in 2017 of how they were accused of being witches and driven out of their house just because they had asked some men to stop defecating on the lands they were growing food crops on.[v] Other states that continually report cases of witch-hunt are Chhattisgarh, Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Maharashtra. On an average, one woman in India is killed every day due to this offence.[vi]

The reasons behind this can be many. Most commonly, men brand the women they dislike or fear as witches in an attempt to ostracise them from the society. Often because people find women to be easy targets, and therefore, blame them for any unfortunate event that takes place, ranging from a loss in the family all the way to the outbreak of a disease. Women who are alone and own property are usually singled out by people who want to procure their land. India being a superstitious country also has characters like Bhopas and Ojhas who claim to be alternative healers with powers to decipher a so-called witch from other women. And this is not it. A number of villages also have unofficial caste panchayats who subject persons of lower castes to such misery.

Some extremely shocking occurrences of witch-hunts in India have involved women being paraded naked around the village, gang-raped, mutilated, forced to consume human excreta and beaten to death.[vii] Even the thought that an offence this vicious still exists in present times is enough to send a chill down one's spine.

Laws in India to protect women against this evil practice
Witch-hunting is a clear infringement of the fundamental rights a citizen is entitled to under the Constitution of India. It violates Articles 14, 15(3), 15(4), 21, 51, 51A(h) of the Indian Constitution and other national legislations including Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes (prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989 and involves acts punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Several states have also individually introduced and implemented instruments to address this offence. In 1999, Bihar enacted the Prevention of Witch (DAAIN) Practices Act which was eventually adopted by Jharkhand as well in 2001. Chhattisgarh effected the Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act in 2005. Rajasthan and Assam have been the most recent states to develop a legislation on the same in the year 2015.

However, despite having these laws in place, perpetrators often get away due to the unwillingness of the witnesses to testify against them. This has previously been seen in cases such as Madhu Munda v. State of Bihar[viii].

In Tula Devi and others v. State of Jharkhand[ix], the defendants were convicted but not under the Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 2001. Here, the court held that the burden of proof was on the victim who was required to show that she was being accused of being a witch.
These state instruments have more often than not failed to protect women.

The way forward
So, what is the solution? A national legislation criminalizing witch-hunting is the need of the hour. There is also an evident lack of coordination between these existing state enactments and the Indian Penal Code that prosecutes the offenders. A proper system to punish the wrongdoers under both levels of legislation is absent. Also, the necessity of a harsher sanction cannot be emphasised enough.

Affirmative measures must be taken to ensure appropriate investigation into a complaint by the police and other officials. Setting up special cells in states where this offence is rather prevalent will protect women from unwarranted brutality and violence. And lastly, the victims must be provided with compensation and rehabilitation facilities.

Witch-hunting is a barbaric and illogical crime that continues to take place in today's world. It is about time that people are made aware of it and requisite steps are taken to abolish it.

End-Notes:
  1. Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004, 4850
  2. Edward Miguel, Poverty and Witch Killing, The Review of Economic Studies 72, No. 4, October 1st 2005, 11531172
  3. A Study on Violence due to Witchcraft Allegation and Sexual Violence, Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), 2013 http://www.whrin.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Witchcraft-report-INSEC.pdf
  4. Seema Yasmin, Witch Hunts Today: Abuse of Women, Superstition and Murder Collide in India, Scientific American, January 11th, 2010 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/witch-hunts-today-abuse-of-women-superstition-and-murder-collide-in-india/
  5. Id.
  6. Jason McLure, Global Journalist: Climate Change In South Asia, Kbia.Org, 2018, https://www.kbia.org/post/global-journalist-climate-change-south-asia.#stream/0
  7. Terrence McCoy, Thousands of Women, Accused of Sorcery, Tortured and Executed in Indian Witch Hunts, The Washington Post, WP Company, July 21st 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/21/thousands-of-women-accused-of-sorcery-tortured-and-executed-in-indian-witch-hunts/
  8. 2003 (3) JCR 156 Jhr
  9. 2006 (3) JCR 222 Jhr

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