A panchayat in Chaibasa decided on Wednesday to slap a fine of Rs 5,000 against villagers for accusing a woman of practising witchcraft, the first such step against superstition rampant in the tribal-dominated state, a village headman has said.
Anyone calling another person a “witch” will be penalised and if the offence is repeated, the accused would face social boycott, said Janum Singh Deogam, Nimdih panchayat chief in West Singhbhum’s Old Chaibasa, about 75 km from here.
“A dispute between two families of the village was going on since December 28 and on Tuesday night we called the village council meeting to settle differences and henceforth we have decided to impose a fine on villagers who accuse a woman of practicing witchcraft,” Singh told HT.
“We wanted to resolve this for once and all as two-three such cases come to us every month,” he said, adding that similar ruling should be passed by other tribal self-governance bodies in the state. “There should not be any more killing in the name of witch-hunting.”
Sumitra Deogam, the newly elected mukhiya of the village, said she intervened and convinced the village council to convene a meeting to settle the dispute.
“The victim’s mother told me that a family in the village used to call her mother a witch,” she said.
Naresh Deogam, general secretary of Adivasi Ho Samaj Mahasabha, said the victim’s family had approached the police but they wanted them to settle matter under the traditional tribal self-governance and panchayat system.
“In most cases, the village priest or deven brands someone a witch but this decision will deter them now,” he said.
Chhutni Mahato, 57, who survived a murderous assault in 1995 after being branded a “witch”, told HT “it was a landmark tribal ruling and a small step towards ending the witch-hunting menace in the state”. “Just a fine is not enough…a social boycott will be more effective,” she said.
“There is a need for social awareness about laws against witchhunting…,” said Mahato, who has rescued more than 40 people accused of practicing witchcraft and on whom the acclaimed film “Kaala Sach” was made in 2014.
Branding women as witches is particularly prevalent among tribal communities in the state.
While the belief in black magic is superstitious, accusations of witchcraft often stem from village rivalry or jealousy.
Often, a conspiracy is hatched by a single person and slowly the entire village is lured in. The person branded a witch is often held responsible for illness, crop failures, property loss, or a natural calamity.
Experts say superstitious beliefs are behind some of these attacks, but there are occasions when people are targeted for their land and property.
Prem Chand, president of Free Legal Aid Committee, said all 4,500 panchayats in the state, particularly the 1,700 tribal dominated panchayats in 112 blocks, should immediately adopt the ruling.