If a man has put a spell upon another man and has not justified himself, he
upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river. He shall plunge into the
holy river, and if the holy river overcomes him, he who wove the spell upon him
shall take to himself his house. If the holy river makes that man to be
innocent, and has saved him, he who laid the spell upon him shall be put to
death. He who plunged into the holy river shall take to himself the house of him
who wove the spell upon him. - The Code of Hammurabi (2000 B.C.)
The initiation of witch-hunting
The existence of witch-hunting can be traced as far back as the ancient period.
331 B.C. saw the mass execution of 170 women after being labelled witches in
Rome. This practice rampantly continued until late 4th century A.D. and did not
wane until the introduction of Christianity in the Roman State.[i]
by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 81 BCE, the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis'
became a vital source of legislation on witch-hunting for medieval and early
modern Europe, banning the possession of drugs, magical books, and other sorcerous practices.
During the middle ages, the inhumane rituals of witch-hunting spread across
other European countries as well. But the situation reached its absolute worst
during the early Modern period with the incipience of witch trials'. These
trials generally involved burning people alive (80% being women) for the alleged
offence of witchcraft. The 17th century saw the spread of witch-hunting like
wildfire, with people associating women to satanic and diabolical practices and
persecuting them. However, the situation finally improved during 18th century as
the last known cases of witch-hunting in Europe were seen.
Lamentably, the archaic practice propagated to other parts of the world
including Africa and Asia after the 18th century. It still exists in
superstitious societies that believe in the idea of sorcery. Despite hard works
of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United
Nations Organisation (UNO), instances of lynching and burning of the so-called
witches' still occur.
Modern witch-hunts are mostly restricted to the
economically weak and marginalized sections of societies and often even see the
involvement of one's own family members who indulge in these in the name of
social cleansing[ii]. In the past three centuries, Sub-Saharan Africa has not
just witnessed women but also children as victims of witch-hunts.
of attributing all kinds of misfortunes including the famines, occurring of
warts, sightings of supernatural entities and more to the presence of witches,
has killed several in the process. Nepal is another country where witch-hunting
takes place commonly, with the targets mostly being lower-caste women[iii].
of education, awareness, literacy, existence of a patriarchal society,
superstitious beliefs and the caste system have exacerbated the violence
resulting from this ghastly crime.
Today, Saudi Arabia is the only Asian country where witch-hunting is an offence
punishable by death.
The hauntings of witch-hunting in India
Despite being a nefarious practice of the early Modern period, India is
deplorably one of the few countries around the world that still witnesses horrid
cases of witch-hunting. Women are beaten, tortured, burned, raped, and murdered,
all in the name of witch-hunts. On July 20th, 2019, four elderly people
including two women were accused of engaging in witchcraft and lynched by a mob
in Gumla district of Jharkhand.
As per police data, 123 people have died in
Jharkhand between 2016 and 2019 at the hands of mobs. 134 people were killed
nation-wide on the pretext of practicing black magic in 2016 while 2500 people
have lost their lives due to witch-hunting between 2000 and 2016.[iv] Rajasthan
saw several such cases in 2017, with the murder of a 40-year-old woman Kanya
Devi who was beaten to death after being accused of practicing black magic
taking the centre-stage.
Three Gujarati women who are currently staying at an
NGO narrated their heart-wrenching story in 2017 of how they were accused of
being witches and driven out of their house just because they had asked some men
to stop defecating on the lands they were growing food crops on.[v] Other states
that continually report cases of witch-hunt are Chhattisgarh, Assam, Odisha,
West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Maharashtra. On
an average, one woman in India is killed every day due to this offence.[vi]
The reasons behind this can be many. Most commonly, men brand the women they
dislike or fear as witches in an attempt to ostracise them from the society.
Often because people find women to be easy targets, and therefore, blame them
for any unfortunate event that takes place, ranging from a loss in the family
all the way to the outbreak of a disease. Women who are alone and own property
are usually singled out by people who want to procure their land. India being a
superstitious country also has characters like Bhopas
who claim to
be alternative healers with powers to decipher a so-called witch from other
women. And this is not it. A number of villages also have unofficial caste panchayats
who subject persons of lower castes to such misery.
Some extremely shocking occurrences of witch-hunts in India have involved women
being paraded naked around the village, gang-raped, mutilated, forced to consume
human excreta and beaten to death.[vii] Even the thought that an offence this
vicious still exists in present times is enough to send a chill down one's
Laws in India to protect women against this evil practice
Witch-hunting is a clear infringement of the fundamental rights a citizen is
entitled to under the Constitution of India. It violates Articles 14, 15(3),
15(4), 21, 51, 51A(h) of the Indian Constitution and other national legislations
including Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, Scheduled castes and Scheduled
Tribes (prevention of atrocities) Act, 1989 and involves acts punishable under
the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Several states have also individually introduced and implemented instruments to
address this offence. In 1999, Bihar enacted the Prevention of Witch (DAAIN)
which was eventually adopted by Jharkhand as well in 2001. Chhattisgarh
effected the Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act
Rajasthan and Assam have been the most recent states to develop a legislation on
the same in the year 2015.
However, despite having these laws in place, perpetrators often get away due to
the unwillingness of the witnesses to testify against them. This has previously
been seen in cases such as Madhu Munda v. State of Bihar
In Tula Devi and
others v. State of Jharkhand
[ix], the defendants were convicted but not under
the Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 2001. Here, the court held that
the burden of proof was on the victim who was required to show that she was
being accused of being a witch.
These state instruments have more often than not failed to protect women.
The way forward
So, what is the solution? A national legislation criminalizing witch-hunting is
the need of the hour. There is also an evident lack of coordination between
these existing state enactments and the Indian Penal Code that prosecutes the
offenders. A proper system to punish the wrongdoers under both levels of
legislation is absent. Also, the necessity of a harsher sanction cannot be
Affirmative measures must be taken to ensure appropriate investigation into a
complaint by the police and other officials. Setting up special cells in states
where this offence is rather prevalent will protect women from unwarranted
brutality and violence. And lastly, the victims must be provided with
compensation and rehabilitation facilities.
Witch-hunting is a barbaric and illogical crime that continues to take place in
today's world. It is about time that people are made aware of it and requisite
steps are taken to abolish it.
- Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History,
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004, 48�50
- Edward Miguel, Poverty and Witch Killing, The Review of Economic Studies
72, No. 4, October 1st 2005, 1153�1172
- A Study on Violence due to Witchcraft Allegation and Sexual Violence,
Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), 2013 http://www.whrin.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Witchcraft-report-INSEC.pdf
- Seema Yasmin, Witch Hunts Today: Abuse of Women, Superstition and Murder
Collide in India, Scientific American, January 11th, 2010 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/witch-hunts-today-abuse-of-women-superstition-and-murder-collide-in-india/
- Jason McLure, Global Journalist: Climate Change In South Asia, Kbia.Org,
- Terrence McCoy, Thousands of Women, Accused of Sorcery, Tortured and
Executed in Indian Witch Hunts, The Washington Post, WP Company, July
21st 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/21/thousands-of-women-accused-of-sorcery-tortured-and-executed-in-indian-witch-hunts/
- 2003 (3) JCR 156 Jhr
- 2006 (3) JCR 222 Jhr