BHILWARA, India (WOMENSENEWS)–At midnight, inside her home in a remote village in India, 16-year-old Chaandi Balia started rolling on the floor, thrashing about violently while making strange sounds. As the entire village gathered to watch her "playing," as it’s called in the local parlance, Chaandi Balia announced that a spirit had taken over her body and told her that Khemi Balia, her old aunt, was a witch and must be burned.
Led by Chaandi Balia and her family, the villagers worked themselves into a frenzy and started gathering sticks to prepare a funeral pyre. That night, knowing that her only chance of survival was escape, Khemi Balia silently slipped out of the village. The frail 60-year-old woman traveled barefoot through the cold fields; she did not know where she was going, and was not even sure if she would live to see the morning.
Balia safely reached a village strange to her where she did not know anyone. Reluctant to place her faith in the police, she befriended a local village woman who advised her to approach Tara Ahluwalia, a social worker in the nearby town of Bhilwara who helps victims of witch-hunting. From experience, Ahluwalia knew that Balia was being persecuted because of the one-acre farmland she owned, her only source of livelihood. By labeling her as a witch, Balia’s accusers effectively removed her from the village and could now possess her land.
Cases of witch-hunting occur largely in rural areas of half a dozen states, primarily in the northern and central parts of India. About 700 women were killed last year under suspicion of being a witch, according to news media reports.
"These areas face acute poverty, with little or no access to the most basic health care, education and sanitation," says Ahluwalia. "In these circumstances, superstition gains a force of its own. The problems are many–bad crop, death in the family, loss of a child, persistent illness or drying up of wells–but the solution remains the same: locate the witch responsible for the problem and punish her."
Common Ploy to Harass Women
Labeling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores or even to punish her for turning down sexual advances. Cases have also come up where a strong-willed woman is targeted because she is assertive and is seen as a threat. In a majority of the cases, it is difficult for the accused woman to reach out for help and she is forced to either abandon her home and family, commit suicide or is brutally murdered.
Most cases are not documented because it’s difficult for women to travel from isolated regions to file reports, Ahluwalia says, and because the violence is largely directed toward women, the police often fail to take it seriously when they do.
"At best, they dismiss it as a social evil to be resolved within the community," she says. "In cases where the women do manage to reach the police station, the apathetic attitude of the police makes the process of lodging a complaint even more tedious."
Ahluwalia helped Balia not by going to the police station, but by leveraging the platform of a "jaati panchayat," a respected group of people from the community who hear disputes in front of the entire village and issue a decision. Social pressure ensures that the decisions are obeyed. Ahluwalia has used the system for the past 25 years to resolve disputes.
Ahluwalia gathered people from the entire village and threatened to expose the family and have them arrested. The accusers had not bargained for the intervention of a powerful outsider. Cowed down, they admitted the witch-hunt was a charade and publicly apologized to Balia. It was an exceptional case and she was able to return to her village.
Limited Legal Framework
Only a handful of India’s 28 states, like Jharkhand and Bihar, have a law against witch-hunting.
"The biggest handicap is that in most of the states, there is no law under which the police can book those who are accused of witch-hunting," Ahluwalia said. "This is an attempt to murder. But in the absence of a law, the police register the complaint under the relatively mild Section 323. Let’s say I slap you today, then I am booked under 323, and if I say you are a witch, make you eat excreta, parade you naked in public and beat you till death, then also I am booked under 323."
The maximum penalty for a 323 offense is a jail term up to one year and a fine of 1,000 rupees, about $25. In Rajasthan, the state commission for women has submitted a draft bill to the state government to stiffen penalties; the bill calls for a 10-year prison term for those who harm a woman in a witch-hunt.
"A large number of these cases take place in Rajasthan, yet the draft bill is lying with the government for over a year now and it is still not passed," said Kavita Srivastava, the national secretary of New Delhi-based People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the oldest human rights organization in India. "This reflects the significance the state government has attached to the issue."
2 Percent Conviction Rate
Less than 2 percent of those accused of witch-hunting are actually convicted, according to a study by the Free Legal Aid Committee, a group that works with victims in the state of Jharkhand.
"Severe punishment must be given to perpetrators of such horrific violence, so that it serves as a deterrent for others," said Dr. Girija Vyas, chair of the government’s National Commission for Women. "It is also equally important to publicize the existence of such a law. I mean, in states which do have a law against witch-hunting, how many women are even aware of it?"
The commission recommends training the police force to make them more receptive to handling such cases and is exploring legislation at the national level. But education and social awareness are key.
The "ojha"–or witch doctor–in many rural communities serves as a powerful local figure in the absence of medical doctors and access to basic health care services. In news media reports of witch-hunt cases, police investigations have revealed that witch doctors often accept bribes to name a woman as a witch.
"Branding a woman as a witch not only exploits her economically, but also erodes her sense of confidence and self-esteem," Vyas says. "Even if she escapes with her life, she is always burdened with the distrust and hatred of her community, and sometimes, even of her own family. This unique social problem has many dimensions and it requires a comprehensive action plan."
Swati Saxena is a professional freelance writer currently based out of India. Her work has appeared in Indian and international publications.
For more information:
India’s National Commission for Women:
People’s Union for Civil Liberties:
"Indian Women Pioneer Informal Justice Courts":
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