March 02, 2004
Persecution of ‘witches’ (Depiction: Wikipedia)
A 21st Century Dark Age Cries Out For Rule Of Law !*
By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India
New Delhi (UNI) – Lives of helpless women branded as witches by men out to exploit them left a woman cop-turned-international civil servant almost speechless.
After watching a two hour film titled Jeet, Kiran Bedi said it made her wonder what she was doing flying to New York when there is so much to be done here.
Bedi, currently United Nations Civilian Police Adviser assigned to helping bring rule of law to UN Peacekeeping, was in New Delhi the past week. Almost impulsively she remarked that is work and service, too.
Efforts to quell complex conflicts over the past decade appear to have finally brought home to the UN that for peace to sustain, rule of law must be established first. To that end, the role of police officers– domestic and global– has taken on growing significance in the mandates of UN peacekeeping missions.
Rule of law– or its absence– was also the theme underlying the film at hand sponsored by the Human Resource Development Ministry’s National Literacy Mission screened at Habitat over the weekend.
It tells the story of a widow and her teenaged daughter preyed on by a village head and his henchman who is a ‘witch-doctor’ or ojha.
Both women are branded witches. One is burnt, the other dragged into the forest and gang-raped.
Emancipation comes from exposure to education brought to the village by a journalist-turned-teacher who exposes the exorcist with the help of a professional magician.
India, said Bedi, is broadly three worlds. At one end of the spectrum is the Infosys world, at the other, this. ”In between,” she told audience, ”it’s us.”
Clearly, she went on, there is a lot to be done. Watching the movie made her wonder how many times she would have to be reborn to do it all, she said.
Witch-hunt outlawed and consigned to history – a Norwegian monument in memory of victims (Photo: Wikipedia)
Another viewer, former Information and Broadcasting Minister Vasant Sathe, said he felt impelled to look within and think of superstition that abounds among India’s educated even in the 21st century.
According to film-maker Lavlin Thadani, witch branding takes a toll of several hundred victims year after year in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and elsewhere.
The problem is a manifestation of failure to deliver on several fronts– education, health care and law and order.
”Violence against women is part of rural life, resorted to by the upper castes to keep the disadvantaged under economic and social subjugation and inflict political lessons,” she said.
”It is one of the ways for preservation of caste structure and upper caste hegemony, witch branding just being a cover for exploitative social arrangement.”
In absence of a proper medical support system, tribal communities rely on ojhas for magic spells to cure the sick. They enjoy power over the community. Many illnesses run their course and disappear.
When their mumbo-jumbo or potion fails to relieve a patient, a scapegoat is found, invariably in the poorest and most vulnerable women. Whether it is tuberculosis or any other virus, villagers readily believe it is a result of witchcraft.
At times, ojhas are used to target widows or single women who come into property or land. At times, because a woman has spurned a man’s advances. Given high levels of morbidity, blind faith and greed, ojhas have little trouble making a living.
Women accused of witchcraft are hounded, dragged into the forest and hacked, hanged or burned to death. Their teeth are knocked out, heads shaved or breasts chopped off, or they are forced to strip and walk naked through villages– anything to wreck their spirit.
Laws have been enacted but seldom result in convictions. Bihar, notorious in the matter, was reported to have passed a tough law requiring a three-month prison sentence for so much as calling a woman a witch.
One woman branded a witch by relatives, expelled from the village and rejected by her husband, fought back. She sued her kin, who were found guilty. The judge let them off as first-time offenders.
UNI MJ KS