When a 75-year-old woman, labelled a witch by an influential Jat family and locked up in her own home was rescued by a team from the administration in August, the ugly face of medieval-style witch-hunting was revealed in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. The incident at Bholi village in Bhilwara district is not an isolated one.
Sunita Devi (name changed), who spent 18 days in a room measuring 10 ft x 10 ft without a window, was held responsible for the illness of a school-going girl from a Jat home. A ‘bhopa’ (exorcist) told the family that Sunita was a witch, and Jats responded by attacking her modest house – the only one belonging to the backward Nai community in the village – and thrashing her husband and sons.
In another instance, Lakshmi Bai (name changed), 65, has been forced to live in Bhilwara for 12 years after being driven out of her native Dariba village on the suspicion of being a witch. Living with her husband as a social outcast, she attended the caste panchayat five times pleading that the odious tag be removed, but to no avail. Sunita Devi and Lakshmi Bai came to Jaipur this week to narrate their sufferings to State Women’s Commission chairperson Suman Sharma, after the occult practices of ‘bhopas’ were exposed in a sting operation led by social activist Tara Ahluwalia. Hundreds of ‘bhopas’ have gone into hiding in Bhilwara, Chittorgarh, Rajsamand and Udaipur since their torture of innocent women came to light.
Caught in the act
The sting operation was carried out in September by Ms. Ahluwalia – chairperson of Baal Evum Mahila Chetana Samiti – along with two women volunteers and a team of journalists. Disguised as villagers, they approached ‘bhopas’ seeking treatment for ailments. When these ‘exorcists’ declared that the women were under the influence of witches and applied witchcraft, they secretly photographed them.
The occult practices involve pulling women’s hair, beating them with a broom, iron rod and pliers and dancing in front of them with the chanting of unintelligible phrases to “liberate” them. A woman ‘bhopa’, Jhumri Kalbeliya, dressed in a colourful attire, demanded cigarettes and dragged the woman volunteer to a smoke-fire. She put a knife to her throat, threatening the witch “residing in her body.”
Those who attacked Sunita Devi’s house were arrested under Rajasthan’s Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, 2015, but they are out on bail. “Rajasthan is the fifth State to enact the legislation on witch-hunting, but not a single case among the 86 registered so far since 2015 has resulted in conviction. Three of these involve murder charges,” pointed out Ms. Ahluwalia.
The Samiti chairperson, who has been working with the victims for 35 years, said the practice, based on a superstition that witches enter the bodies of susceptible women, was prevalent mostly in the Mewar region.
The 60-year-old activist said in the majority of cases of women being tortured, beaten up or even killed after being branded as witches, there was the sinister angle of ‘bhopas’, relatives and neighbours trying to usurp their property. Moreover, almost all women labelled as witches are Dalits, poor and widows.
After the sting operation in which the role of the so-called witch doctors was exposed, the civil society was outraged by the failure of police to book ‘bhopas.’ Seven of them operating in Bhilwara and Chittorgarh were detained for a night under Section 151 of Criminal Procedure Code and released the next day with a warning.
Following protests by civil rights groups, police launched a crackdown and started registering first information reports under Section 6 of the Witch-Hunting Act. On Ms. Ahluwalia’s complaint, an FIR was registered against Jhumri Kabeliya – who claims to be an incarnation of nine goddesses – on Wednesday and a hunt was launched to trace her.
Bhilwara Superintendent of Police Pradeep Mohan Sharma said all ‘bhopas’ would be arrested and booked under the Witch-Hunting Act, but the activists say the State government should show stronger will.
An important provision of the Witch-Hunting Act is Section 8, empowering the State government to impose a collective fine on the inhabitants of a given area for abetting or participating in witch-hunting or sheltering the perpetrators. The fine is to be used for compensating and rehabilitating the victims. However, no such fine has been imposed so far.
The Act provides for imprisonment for one to five years and a fine of ₹50,000 to anyone who stages such attacks. Two recent cases of witch-hunting, in which the women were tortured to death, have brought into focus the intensity of superstitious notions. A 40-year-old Dalit woman was branded a witch, stripped, beaten up mercilessly and made to eat faeces in Kadera village of Ajmer on August 2. She was forced to walk on embers which were shoved into her eyes, blinding her.
After the woman died of torture, the local caste panchayat asked the accused to take a dip in the holy pond in Pushkar and feed cows in order to “absolve themselves of their sin”. A 70-year-old woman in Semari block of Udaipur district was beaten to death on September 23.