In tribal rural Jharkhand and Orissa, women are attacked under the evil practice of witch hunting. Men convince villagers to drive out these ‘witches’ to save themselves, stealing her property and wealth. The article analyses the dynamics of property rights of tribal women and the land grabbing by male relatives.
Honour and property:Where women are hunted as witches.
Shehanas Pazhoor is a freelance writer and researcher. She also teaches rural development and sustainability to undergraduate liberal arts students. Her interests lie in gender, livelihood, anthropology, governance and environmental studies. She finds happiness in reading.
Every lone woman in her late thirties in tribal villages in Jharkhand wakes up to the potential threat of witch blaming. These women constantly pray that their village should be saved from any form of accident or natural calamities, otherwise the blame shall fall on them and eventually can lead to physical and social attacks and, in most cases even death.
According to National Crime Records Bureau, Jharkhand has the highest number of reported cases of witch hunting and resultant deaths in the country. The data released by the state police confirms that in 2019 alone, there were 27 reported deaths due to witch hunting practices. In 2018 Jharkhand witnessed 18 similar deaths.
Poor literacy and belief in traditional and regressive healing practices are the reasons cited for the increasing deaths due to witch hunting practices. The lack of public health facilities are also found as an important reason. However a significant and hidden cause behind the witch hunting practices are women’s land right issues. Many women who are being attacked by this evil practice are mostly older women and widows who are placed at a lower level of the social hierarchy by the society itself.
When women are being murdered of witch hunting, their property get shared among their male relatives. In most cases, the accusers are the male relatives of the women. A police officer who dealt with these crime records says that “Most of [them] …were widows and aged… the significant reason, was the lack of protection or coverage from powerful relatives”. Thus, it becomes evident that witch hunting is a practice for the property of a woman who does not have any male heirs.
The phenomenon of witch hunting is primarily observed among the Santhal and Munda tribes of Jharkhand. The same has also been observed among the tribal communities of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Witch hunting in tribal communities can be analysed as a process of establishing the authority of men over women. In this social process of controlling women, there is always a threat of being declared as a witch, which will restrict women and force them to comply with the norms. These tribal women are in constant fear that any deviant behaviour from the socially constructed norms would result in them being identified as witches. This is a manifestation of power hierarchy founded upon patriarchy. There are even instances when the entire women of the community are identified as witches. In a study conducted in Orissa, there was an instance, where the entire women in a village were declared as witched and forced to carry the dead bollocks to the field.
Tribal women enjoy limited and marginal rights over land within the patriarchal system. Usually the kind of rights that women enjoy fall under two categories. One, which allows the woman the rights over the land which allows her to manage it and its produce and the other is to have a share in the produce from the land. In the villages of Jharkhand, unmarried daughters have a right in the food crops that she helped to harvest. But the most contested rights are those of widows. Witch hunting practices are based on widow’s land rights. The widow becomes the “father” to her children and if her sons are minors, she manages and controls the land and other properties. When her sons come of age, she partitions the land among the sons and gets a claim on the share of the land or property exactly as her deceased husband would have received at that time. If the woman has daughters instead of sons, she inherits all the land and property from her husband and manages and controls them. This right is conditional on her remaining unmarried and staying back in the village. A Santhal woman without a husband and a father, therefore, has a right over her land. This acts as a restriction for the claims and rights of male relatives of their husbands or father. More than a widow with children, the right over land of a widow without children poses problems for the male relatives of her husband. These women become the most vulnerable. Thus in order to acquire her land, the male relatives of her husband declare her as a witch, when any kind of disease or epidemic or any sort of disaster comes up in the village. Thus these men term the widow with land as the source of evil. Those women who are declared as witches are excommunicated and their land comes under the male relatives of their deceased husband. Whenever women possess any economic right they will be termed as a source of evil.
Unlike in the Munda community, among the Santhals, witches are mostly women. Ojha the witch hunter declare women as witches and deprive her of rights. These self-proclaimed wizards known as Ojhas are usually men who are consulted by the villagers whenever something unusual happens in the village or people fall sick. The Ojhas who cannot treat these sick people, normally ascribe the reason on the presence of an evil element in the village. Villagers believed that these evil elements will be erased upon Ojhas performing ritualistic practices. The first stage is forcing a woman who is labelled as a witch to confine to certain socially accepted behaviours which is based on patriarchal norms. When repeated tragedies occur in villages, the Ojha comes in and name the woman as witch before the entire village. By the time, the male relatives of the woman must have manipulated and created an agreement among the villagers that a particular woman is the witch. Then this woman is ether out chased out of the village or killed.
Various organisations are fighting against this practice, helping women to protect their land rights through legal mechanisms. Centre for Social Justice and ANANDI are some of them. This evil practice can be contained through a gradual change in the system. Providing education and skills to women are important mechanisms to bring changes in the system. Work should be done by government and non-governmental organisations and collectives to create awareness among women regarding their rights and training should be given to use legal avenues to fight against this practice. Strict laws should be brought into action to support Adivasi women’s land rights. Leaving the decision making power to the Adivasi villae council or Gramsabhas in the scheduled V and VI areas are empowering and in accordance with recognising their right and self-governance. However, this is not resulting in reducing crimes against the women in the community, neither are they getting protection for their land rights. Hence there should be proper mechanism to ensure that Adivasi women are given adequate representation in the political bodies such as Gramsabhas and Adivasi village councils.