The wrinkled face of Mangi Bai Kumawat doesn’t twitch anymore as she recounts the horrors of the day in 2014 when she was accused of being a daayan or witch and branded with red-hot iron rods.
Instead, a forlorn expression clouds the face of the elderly lady who, like many other women in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan, has little hope of getting justice.
A district located at the heart of the historical Mewar region, Bhilwara has seen most number of witch-hunting cases over the years in the state. Many cases are pending in courts and the accused out of jail.
“Two years ago, some people from the Mali community barged into my house in Chileshwar village. They were carrying iron rods heated in the fire. Some of them held me forcibly while the others branded my hands, abdomen and ... with the rod. They called me a witch and told me to get out of the village,” Mangi Bai said and showed the scars.
Her case is pending in court, with none of the accused in Jail. Since the attack occurred before the 2015 Rajasthan anti-witch-hunting legislation was introduced, the case doesn’t mention that she was branded a witch and cast out of the village.
But even a year after the bill was passed, victims were awaiting justice.
“The bill was passed last year and since then none of the victims have received the compensation amount of Rs 2 lakh that the law promises. When such incidents happen, police are reluctant to lodge a case under provisions of the new law. They often register the case under sections such as 323 and 351, which has no mention of the witch allegation,” said Tara Ahluwalia, a Bhilwara-based activist and chairperson of the Bal Evang Mahila Chetna Samiti.
She said not only the woman but also her entire family bears the brunt of the daayan tag.
“In many cases, newly-wed daughter-in-laws of women who have been accused as witch leave the family with their young children or start living with another man under the natha pratha because they are threatened to be shunned by the entire community if they don’t severe ties with their mother-in-law,” Ahluwalia said.
As opposed to official figures that show a little more than 20 cases of women being branded witch in Bhilwara, the actual figures are staggering, the activist said. “There have been 61 cases of witch-hunting since 1998-2016 with three of the victims being killed. In all three cases the accused were in jail for a very short period before they got bail.”
Jagdish Damami lost his mother Prem Devi in 2010 after she was stoned to death by upper-caste villagers who accused her of being a witch. He said her body was lying in the village with none of the residents offering help.
“My mother went to work as a labourer at a ceremony of upper-caste people. After the function she asked for her wage. Instead of paying her, they accused her of being a witch. They took her near the edge of the village and started throwing stones at her. They couldn’t digest the fact that someone from a lower caste could ask for remuneration,” Jagdish said.
He alleged that the people who murdered his mother was eyeing her property and that the reason why she was branded a witch to get rid of her. They were allegedly putting pressure on her for one-and-a-half years prior to her killing to vacate a piece of land she owned.
Jagdish and his brother haven’t been able to return to their village. “The property has been occupied by families of the people who killed my mother and we can’t go back home,” he said.
“In most cases, a pattern could be seen wherein many of the victims are from SC, ST and OBC categories. Particularly people from the Yajmani castes such as Kumhar, Dholi and Balai are common targets. Traditionally they used to work for upper castes such as Rajputs, Gujjars or Jats. It often angers the upper castes when they see these age-old caste equations faltering on the wake of education and development. This anger often results into pre-planned attacks on such people,” activist Ahluwalia said.
Last October, an 85-year-old woman from a village in Bhilwara was branded a witch, tortured with hot iron rods and paraded naked in the village.
Most often the victims are widows or women with no male relatives to look after her. As a result, villagers often connive with local bhopas or religious leaders to brand them witches and usurp their property.
The latest such incident is of Parsi Devi, who had to leave her husband’s house after she was beaten and branded a witch by his family. “The FIR was lodged on May 4 but till now there haven’t been any arrests. My sister-in-law is a patwari and it was she who called me a dayaan by saying that after my marriage untoward incidents like death of cattle are happening in the house,” Parsi said.
She alleged that authorities are not taking any action because of her sister-in-law’s position as a patwari.
Teena Kumar, district collector of Bhilwara feels that witch-hunting can be fought only through the spread of education.
“The evils generating from the age-old social structures can be eradicated only by spreading awareness and education is the catalyst to that. We occasionally visit villages and try to engage people in conversation about these issues. But these deep-rooted evils will take time to be eradicated completely. If such cases come to our knowledge we take strict action on them,” Kumar said.
Police dismissed that witch-hunting is a problem in Bhilwara. “There may be one or two stray cases ... Most often social organizations and NGOs blow things out of proportion,” Bhilwara SP Pradeep Mohan Sharma said.