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A Walk on the Dark Side


Lewis Jones

Skeptical Briefs Volume 11.2, June 2001

It is not uncommon to hear someone express the opinion that irrational beliefs may be regrettable, but they are harmless. A favorite example is astrology: “Horoscopes? Just a bit of fun. Come on. Lighten up. Nobody takes them seriously.” To show that the City of Eternal Fairy Lights also has its dark alleys, the news items that follow are all taken from a single issue of Indian Skeptic (February 2001). I pass them on without comment. They have no need of any.

A villager in Karandih died of tuberculosis. Hours later, ten frenzied men, waving swords in the dark, battered at the frail wooden door of Manikui Goipai’s mud and thatch house. “Kill the witch,” they screamed. The attackers broke open the door, and hacked Goipai’s husband to death. They sliced through her son’s arm, but he escaped to summon police before bleeding to death. Then a sword came down on Goipai’s forehead, causing a grievous wound. The attackers fled. Goipai is one of only a few women to survive an attack after being branded a witch in Bihar, India’s most lawless state. According to the Free Legal Aid Committee, 536 women have been killed in the past ten years in just two districts of Bihar. Unofficial estimates say at least 200 women are killed as witches across India every year.

Accused women are dragged into the forest and hacked, hanged, or burned to death. Heads of children have been smashed on rocks. Women suffer smashed teeth, shaved heads, or chopped off breasts. Others have been forced to eat excrement, or to strip and walk naked through the village. Many of the killers are related to the victims, and attack out of fear of a witch’s powers, and the possibility of social rebuke for having a witch in the family.

“Those who kill do not think they are committing any crime,” said Girija Shankar Jaiswal (a lawyer who argues cases for victimized women). “They think they are becoming martyrs. They do not mind going to jail.”

In the village of Damaria, a young man chopped off his aunt’s head and took it to a police station to boast that he had killed a witch. But most such villages are located deep inside hilly and forest areas, and thus still inaccessible, so convictions are rare. By the time reports of the tortures and killings reach the police, all evidence leading to the culprits has been destroyed.

Witch killers are not interested in proof. A man who was merely suspected of practicing witchcraft was beaten to death by villagers at Kottkameta. In the village of Burrathogu, a woman, Korru Venkamma, died of ill health. Suspecting witchcraft, the villagers took her body to the house of Soyam Mutyalu, and searched for him. When they found him returning from the fields, they beat him to death with sticks.

But most of the victims are women. One of them was twenty-seven-year-old Chaibindia, a physically handicapped woman. About a dozen people, including one of her close relatives, raped her, then killed her and six members of her family, including her mother, father, and sister.

Most witch killings have their roots in sickness or death. In Bihar state, where only 52 percent of the men and 23 percent of the women are literate, there is only one primary care center for every 100,000 people. So the village exorcist doubles as a doctor. Ajitha George is doing research on witch killings for the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation. “Traditionally,” she says, “ojhas used to give medicine using herbal potions, but now the tribal health system is falling apart. Now there are many new diseases, and they don’t know the cure.”

But when they fail to treat a sick person, they attribute their failure to some woman, usually a widow or a childless woman, preferably one with some property. They claim that such a woman can harm a person by just looking at them, or by throwing something like a piece of driftwood towards their victim. A woman is said to acquire this power by killing someone close to her. Then, by going through some rituals, she can inflict injury on anyone without being visible.

The torture and execution of witches are not impulsive actions taken in the heat of the moment. In a planned operation lasting four hours, the single phone connection to the village of Timmapur was cut, then the five victims were bound, battered, and tied to a tree. They were then doused in kerosene and burnt alive.

Nor is the credulity always connected with belief in witchcraft. In the Bidar district, construction workers found the arms and legs of a six-and-a-half-year-old victim sticking out of a pit. They found the head separately “with scratch marks on it.” His grandfather said the boy was killed to appease the gods before commencing the construction of the building.

At Newasa, three children were kidnapped, but not for ransom. Their blood was needed to propitiate the gods, to reveal the spot where a treasure trove was said to have been hidden. The police recovered a pitcher used for carrying the children’s blood.

Some people who do not have a male child think they can get one by sacrificing a young child. This is the reason given by Tara, a Punjab woman, who sacrificed the five-year-old son of a neighbor at the suggestion of a local tantrik or baba. In the words of a local policeman, “the neck was twisted to draw out the blood. Then the toes and fingers were also cut to draw more blood to fill a vessel, to adhere to the tantrik’s directions of drawing out maximum blood.” The tantrik, Om Parkash, unhesitatingly confessed to presiding over the entire procedure.

He explained without emotion that the boy cried a little before he was felled by a swoop of the sharp-edged fodder-cutter.

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.