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Last week in the Eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, five women were woken in the middle of the night, dragged from their homes and beaten to death in the street by their neighbours and friends. In parts of India, specifically the Eastern states, there are frequent attacks on women who are believed to be witches by their peers. Accusations of witchcraft that result in communal murders have long been a part of rural India’s history. Part of the reason it is especially rampant in Jharkhand is due to the state’s indigenous religion Sarna, which views women as second-class citizens.
Many accusations of witchcraft come from villages having bad crop harvests, rampant disease and illnesses, and the deaths of children. Single women, especially widows, are targeted by accusations saying they are casting curses and practicing black magic when things start to go wrong in their villages. The accused women are “branded” by the accusers, which makes it impossible for them to socialise within their villages, and they are consequently forced to live on the edge of their communities. Eventually the women who have been branded as witches are hunted, tortured and killed in grotesque ways.
Eastern Indian states especially have a sobering history of witch hunting and communal murders, but perhaps the most haunting part is how few are believed to be reported to the officials. According to Indian government statistics, around 2000 women were killed in the Eastern Indian states after being branded witches between 2000 and 2012, but activist Dr Dinesh Mishra believes these numbers are just 10 per cent of the real total. After seeing a woman dragged into the streets and beaten to death in 1995, Dr Mishra became a social activist for women in states of India where witch hunting has caused excessive deaths and violence.
The branding of women as witches has more widespread consequences than death. A man claiming to be a shaman was recently arrested in Eastern state Chhattisgarh for forcing women to drink poison in a “witchcraft test”. This is one of many violent and often deadly ways that villagers test whether accused women are actually witches. Some of the other methods include physical abuse, starvation and poisoning.
The nature of the murders is horrific in detail, and the scariest part is that they are carried out ritualistically by entire villages—these aren’t isolated murders committed by a few individuals, but rather a violent, ongoing consequence of beliefs held by a majority in some Indian states. Some of the arrests made have shown even young, educated youth being caught up in the mob mentality that occurs in these rural villages. A mixture of fear and desperation means communities are willing to kill those who they believe threaten their safety.