Bengal family returns home 3 years after ostracised over witchcraft claims
Jyethu Hansda and his wife Jasomoti stepped inside their house along with their children and grandchildren under the watchful eyes of government officials and policemen
The Munikundu village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on Wednesday witnessed the return of a tribal family three years after they were ostracised and thrown out of their home over witchcraft claims.
Fifty-year-old Jyethu Hansda and his wife Jasomoti, 45, stepped inside their house along with their children and grandchildren under the watchful eyes of government officials and policemen.
The 12-member Santhal family was hounded out by fellow tribal villagers in August 2020 when Jasomoti was branded as a witch. Since then, they had been wandering from one village to another in search of food and shelter.
Since April 24, the family had been living in a community hall provided by the administration in the heart of Birbhum’s bustling Bolpur town.
On May 3, HT reported that Jyethu’s four minor grandchildren-- two girls and two boys-- had not seen a school ever since the family was ostracised and thrown out of home.
Sumiram Hansda, 24, Jyethu’s youngest son, is the only one among the elders who went to a school, but he dropped out after Class 7. With no land of their own, the Hansdas work as wage labourers for a living.
In August 2020, Munikundu residents accused Jasomati of practising witchcraft because she used to worship idols. A kangaroo court, where a witchdoctor was present, alleged that she was responsible for the death of a villager and some livestock, HT reported in May after talking to the Hansdas and district officials.
“We could not have returned home had the administration not helped us. Till now we have not faced any problem. We have kept our fingers crossed,” Uday Hansda, 37, Jyethu and Jasomoti’s first son, said on Friday.
Ayan Nath, the sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Bolpur, played a key role in helping the Santal family return home, Uday said.
“Since this is a sensitive issue, the administration did not exert any pressure on the villagers. Rather, we held a series of meetings with them. The local panchayat samiti president also played an active role. During the reconciliatory talks we found out that another tribal family from this village was stigmatised in the past and Uday Hansda played a role in that. That family bought a house in Bolpur town and settled down,” said Nath.
“At the last meeting, I intentionally took a strong stand and said the government cannot allow the Hansdas to live like this forever. Our job doesn’t end here. I am closely monitoring the village. Four policemen, of whom three are members of the tribal community, have been deployed there so that they can keep an eye on the local people,” Nath added.
Admitting that he made a mistake by stigmatising another family, Uday said: “We have agreed to withdraw the police complaint we lodged against those who drove us out of the village. Since the matter went to court, we have to wait for the next hearing. We want to live in peace.”
“The policemen have set up a camp here. The villagers have not said anything to us so far, probably out of fear. We hope the situation will remain peaceful after the policemen leave,” he added.
The rehabilitation process is not smooth for the Hansdas.
“The government set up electricity connections hours after we returned home, and plumbers were sent today to check the water pipes. Hopefully, the water supply will be restored in a day or two. The house faced the brunt of nature for three years. The thatched roof has been damaged. Right now, we are all sleeping in one room. The house needs repair,” said Sumiram Hansda.
In Bengal, a number of tribal groups have demanded that Sarna, which is quite distinct from Hinduism, be recognised by the Constitution as a separate religion. Numerous agitations have already taken place on this issue.
Followers of Sarna worship nature, instead of idols. In 2020, the Jharkhand Assembly passed a special resolution and sent it to the Centre, seeking a separate religion code for the tribal population.
Bengal’s Scheduled Tribe (ST) population stood at 5.29 million in the 2011 census, accounting for about 5.8% of the total population.
The major chunk of the tribal population lives in West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and Birbhum districts.