Five people, including a woman, were arrested for torturing women in the garb of exorcism from the Bankyarani Mata temple premises in Bhilwara on Saturday. The women, branded as ‘possessed’, were made to walk with footwear on their head and even mouth. They also made them drink water used to wash the footwear.
The practice of witch-hunting and torturing women in the name of being possessed by evil spirits is common among some communities in Rajasthan. Although various steps have been taken both by government agencies and NGOs to remove the social stigma, very little success has been achieved.
The Bhilwara police swung into action after a section of the local media reported how women, branded as ‘possessed,’ were brought to the temple from across the state by their families for ‘treatment’. The ‘curing’ process reportedly drew huge crowd on weekends.
Station house officer of Shambhugarh police station in Bhilwara, Ratan Lal said the accused, commonly referred to as Bhopas – priest singers of folk deities – tricked people for money on the pretext of curing ailing women.
“The five Bhopas — identified as Puranchand, Madan Kasat, Beru Lal, Pappu Singh and Asha Devi — have been arrested under CrPC Section 151 (to prevent the commission of cognisable offences) and will be produced in a court soon. We are also interrogating them,” he said.
According to the police, as part of the ‘treatment’, the Bhopas made the women descend the 200 stairs of the Bankyarani temple on their back that left them injured and their cloths tattered. Some were even beaten with shoes, while others made to walk for kilometres holding footwear in their mouth.
‘Widows, vulnerable women main targets’
Social activist Tara Ahluwalia, who has been working in the district to raise awareness on the evils of witch-hunting, told HT that the practice was rampant in the Mewar belt. “It happens on a smaller scale in many villages in the region, but Bankyarani is a classic example. The Bhopas conspire with villagers and usually target women who are poor, vulnerable, who have small landholdings and mostly widows. Then they conduct a ritual and pretend to identify a woman who has been ‘possessed by evil spirits’. They charge anything between `500 to `5,000 for curing her.”
“The women are often beaten brutally, abused sexually, their houses are wrecked and they are shunned from the villages. Three women in the last five years have been stoned to death in the region,” she said.