Five women in a village in Jharkhand's Mandar block, barely 40km from state capital Ranchi, were lynched for allegedly practising witchcraft early on Saturday, police said.
Sources in the village, who were not party to the crime, told Hindustan Times that it all began with the death of a 17-year-old tribal boy, Bipin Khalko. He died due to a stomach-related ailment last Sunday at Suru Akhra village under Mandar police station.
Villagers, who suspected that these five women practiced witchcraft, jumped to a conclusion that they had killed Khalko by using black magic. On Friday night, people from at least four villages held a meeting that began after 9pm and stretched up to midnight.
In the meeting, they unanimously decided to eliminate the five women to prevent further deaths in the village.
"Every year, these women are claiming 5-7 lives, mostly our young sons and brothers. Lest we kill them, they will continue to claim more lives," said one Xavier at the meeting.
Xavier also allegedly led the frenzied crowd in dragging the women out of their homes and killing them.
"By the time I reached the spot after hearing about the incident around 1am, the mob had already killed them," said village head Prem Chand Ekka.
When police arrived in the morning, the accused villagers showed no remorse for committing the crime and even prevented them from picking the stripped and badly mutilated bodies. And when the police began wielding the baton, all of them came forward to court arrest.
The audacious villagers have also submitted a written confession to the police claiming responsibility for the killings and threatened to eliminate two more women who they could not nab.
Police had detained over a hundred people, mostly men, and packed them in two buses before sending them to an undisclosed location. The women, who were left behind, marched to the nearby Mandar police station and asked the police to arrest them too.
"We have taken control over the situation," said police spokesperson SN Pradhan.
He said the villagers have refused to reveal the names of the actual culprits but said they knew about the person who started the lynching. "We will come out with their names soon," he added.
The frenzied mob also shooed away local legislator Gangotri Kujur, who reached the village in the morning, and warned her not to meddle in their 'personal affairs'.
The incident drew sharp criticism from chief minister Raghubar Das, who described it as a heinous and inhuman act.
"Such incidents in this knowledge-driven age is highly unfortunate and the society should come forward united to fight this social evil," said Das, directing senior police officials to punish the culprits.
Witchcraft is a major social evil spread across the tribal belts of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and the northeast. Barely a month back, villagers in neighbouring Odisha's Keonjhar district had lynched six members of a family in a similar fashion.
In Odisha, around 450 people have reportedly been killed over the years while Jharkhand's social welfare department records show that at least 1046 women were branded as 'witches' and killed since 1995.
Despite numerous awareness programmes launched by the government, Jharkhand Police records show gradual increase in the number of witchcraft-related killings -- 36 in 2012, 54 in 2013 and 56 in 2014 (till November).
"The state, especially politicians, have since decades turned a blind eye towards this malady as they fear meddling in this social evil would alienate their vote bank," said Premchand, president of the NGO Free Legal Aid Committee that had taken an initiative to introduce the witchcraft prevention act in 1999 in Bihar.
He accused that the act is never used and police act only after the murders have already happened.