Phatu Devi, 45, is an alleged witch.
The gram sabha (village committee) of Dhatkidih, a tribal hamlet in Jharkhand’s Seraikela-Kharswan district, 150 km southwest of Ranchi, convicted her of killing an 11-month-old boy through black magic 12 days ago.
The verdict: death.
But Phatu Devi is still alive. Another alleged witch of yesteryear, Chhutni Mahtain — a crusader against the cruel practice prevalent in at least 13 states across India — rescued her from the ‘judges’, who are her son-in-law and his relatives. Phatu lodged a case against her would-be killers and tormentors at the Seraikela police station last week and two persons have been arrested and remanded in judicial custody.
Superintendent of Police Sheetal Oraon said, “Of late, awareness about the law has increased. But much still needs to be done.” Tears in her eyes, Phatu told HT: “I had gone to see my daughter Anita, married to a farmer, Raja, in Dhatkidih. An hour later, Anita’s sister-in-law’s 11-month-old son, suffering from some chronic disease, collapsed.”
Phatu said the grief-stricken family buried the body that evening but asked her to stay back for rituals. “Next morning, probably after consulting a witch doctor, they declared me a witch, accused me of killing the child.” All hell broke loose after the family exhumed the body and locked Phatu with the dead child in a dark, dingy room for two days.
“They wanted me to bring the baby back to life,” she said. “When I learnt about it, I immediately sent some conscientious citizens to Dhatikidh to rescue Phatu,” said Mahtain, who had been tormented in similar fashion 14 years ago and has since been fighting to rescue and protect ‘witches’. Phatu is currently staying with Mahtain.
“The problem is virulent, but awareness and strict implementation of the law are very poor,” said Premchand, president of the Jharkhand-based NGO Free Legal Aid Committee.
About why this crime has been perpetrated since time immemorial, Sangeeta Dasgupta of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, said: “One of the reasons is inheritance of property. Often you would find a sister-in-law (who is about to inherit property) getting denounced (as a witch). Also, a woman who is old could be ostracised. Those who do not have children could again be denounced as witches. There is no one reason for this.”
(With inputs from Meher Ali in New Delhi)