October 10, 2023
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether India needs a central law against witch-hunting. We also look at the setback for Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Does India need a central law against witch-hunting?
If you think of witchcraft, you’d be forgiven for believing it’s all in fiction or the distant past. Witchcraft has been in literature and other media for centuries in several countries. However, there are some places where it’s a real practice. If that’s not concerning enough, it has even led to the deaths of people.
While India has progressed in many aspects, some societal practices and beliefs remain backward and orthodox. Particularly in rural areas, people are often at the mercy of superstition. It becomes a part of their cultural and religious practices. One such practice is witch-hunting. Since it continues to be practised, would a central law against it be the answer?
Witch-hunting is rightfully considered a draconian practice by many. However, it continues to persist in many parts of rural India. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2,500 people, primarily women, were killed over accusations of witchcraft between 2000 and 2016. Furthermore, there has been little to no legal redress. It’s widely seen as pervasive in 12 states, including Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, and Maharashtra.
The legacy of witch-hunting in India goes back centuries. Branding someone a witch was mainly driven by superstition. If a crop failed, the well ran dry, or a family member died or fell ill, villagers would find someone, almost always a woman, to blame. That woman would be branded a witch by villagers.
In the 19th century, villagers sought advice from a local witch hunter, or Bhopa, who would identify the witch. For the person identified as a witch, there was no trial. They didn’t have the chance to defend themselves. What followed was torture – eyes stuffed with red chillies and swung violently upside down from a tree until the person confessed or died.
Today, in certain areas, if a woman is branded a witch, the result is violence, flogging, rape, or murder. The targets are mostly old, single, or unmarried women. Elderly single women are often at the receiving end since they can no longer bear children and are considered a waste in the patriarchal social system. Women and girls in Scheduled Tribes face a higher prevalence of violence, harassment, and persecution as witches. While superstitions haven’t gone away, witchcraft is now often used to oppress women.
In some cases, once the people or persons responsible are caught, the accused are out on bail just after a few months. The survivor often continues to be ostracised by the village. They’re not allowed to enter certain areas or use certain facilities.
Where’s the law in all of this? Well, they’re there and are implemented. Whether it’s enough is another matter altogether. Many states have passed anti-witch hunting laws. Bihar was the first state to pass laws against witch hunting in 1999. Other states like Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have also passed laws. In Assam, laws against witch hunting carry life in prison. However, for the most part, the police only intervene in cases involving murder or attempted murder.
Some states have taken additional measures. In Odisha, some police stations have memorials for victims to help sensitise people. In Jharkhand, Project Garima was implemented. 25 witch-hunting prevention campaign teams conduct street plays and awareness campaigns.
While all these have helped to varying degrees, they haven’t eradicated the scourge of witch-hunting. Will a central law help?
VIEW: It’s absolutely necessary
While anti-superstition and state laws are needed, they aren’t doing much. Yes, we have constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights and provisions, but the reality on the ground still remains. It is due to the shortcomings of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It only takes account of human sacrifice after a murder. Physical torture is categorised as “simple hurt”. Victims fight an uphill battle to get justice and deal with societal pressures.
In states where laws have been passed, the sentencing is light. Conviction rates in Assam have been low despite its 2013 law against witch-hunting. Also, non-implementation remains an issue. In Jharkhand, for example, activists have pointed out how the land mafia continued to exploit the tribal population due to inadequate punishment. The Odisha High Court has observed that the inconsistencies in state laws are reason enough for central legislation.
The Prevention of Witch-Hunting Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 but was never passed. Section 14 categorised witch-hunting as a non-bailable and non-compoundable offence. State governments would also provide free medical assistance and legal aid. It’s a good starting point. Expanding its ambit to a broader section of superstitions is a way forward for central legislation. A central law would account for a victim’s predicament, like forced removal from their homes.
COUNTERVIEW: Need to be careful
Arguably, the most tricky issue to deal with when formulating a central law against witch-hunting, or broadly against superstitious practices, is being cognizant of deeply-held religious practices and beliefs. Many cultures in rural India follow ancient religious beliefs, and some even symbolise witchcraft as a part of their heritage. Would a central law ensure that people who are afraid of being excommunicated from their tribe are protected?
There’s also a threat to a person’s life, not just the victim. Accusing someone of witchcraft is a violation of human rights. In many cases, people accused are often at the receiving end of mob justice. If the concept of innocent, until proven guilty, isn’t applied, then there’s a concern that mob justice could run amok in places where any superstitious or religious belief is deemed witchcraft.
A better approach to tackle hunting is strengthening state laws to ensure local populations are protected and there’s no government overreach. Given several cases involve villagers and tribals, the tribal chiefs carry a lot of power. It would be better for state laws and campaigns who know the demographic and culture to tackle the issue as people will be wary of outsiders.
- The Deep Roots of Witch Branding in India – The Diplomat
- How ‘witches’ were hunted and punished in 19th century India – Scroll
- India Struggles to Eradicate an Old Scourge: Witch Hunting – The New York Times
- State anti-superstition laws not enough. India needs a central law, focus on victim not crime – The Print
- Greed & Power Override Myth As India’s Poorest State Strives To End The Hunting Of Witches By 2023 – Article 14
- Need For Statutory Restrictions On Witchcraft – Legal Services India
What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) India needs a central law on witch-hunting.
b) India doesn’t need a central law on witch-hunting.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
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For the Left:
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🇮🇳 STATE OF THE STATES
Kargil election results (Ladakh) – The National Conference-Congress alliance secured a significant victory in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council-Kargil elections, winning 22 out of the 26 seats. The BJP managed to claim only two seats. The elections were seen as a reflection of the Centre’s decision in August 2019 to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories.
Why it matters: The election results indicate a strong regional response to the central government’s actions in 2019. The overwhelming victory of the NC-Congress alliance suggests a preference for regional parties and a potential disapproval of the Centre’s policies in the region.
Setback for Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh) – Former Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) national president N Chandrababu Naidu’s anticipatory bail petitions in three different cases were dismissed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The dismissal followed Naidu’s arrest by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) concerning a skill development scam, where he was accused of misappropriating funds from the Skill Development Corporation.
Why it matters: Earlier, Naidu attempted to challenge an Andhra Pradesh High Court order in the apex court, which was aiming to quash an FIR against him related to the Skill Development Corporation scam, but the apex court deferred his plea. The legal scrutiny surrounding Naidu could potentially influence public opinion and the reputation of the Telugu Desam Party, impacting the political dynamics in the region.
Strike postponed (Odisha) – The All Odisha Private Bus Owners’ Association decided to postpone their planned indefinite strike from October 10 to October 31, after a steering committee meeting. The decision came as the Odisha government acceded to some of the association’s demands, including providing permits for old buses and extending the deadline for the installation of Vehicle Location Tracking Devices (VLTD) and panic buttons by a year.
Why it matters: A review meeting regarding financial assistance will be held on October 13, and the association expressed no issues with the government’s initiative to launch affordable transportation under the Location Accessible Multimodal Initiative (LAccMI), asking for their buses to be included in the scheme.
Bullet train land acquired (Gujarat) – The National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) has completed the land acquisition in Gujarat for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, acquiring the last parcel of land in Kathore village, Surat district in September. A total of 951.14 hectares were acquired in Gujarat.
Why it matters: The completion in Gujarat contributes to 99.95% of the land acquisition for the project across Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, once completed, is expected to significantly improve connectivity and foster economic growth in the region.
Butterfly Meet concludes (Arunachal Pradesh) – The 10th Ziro Butterfly Meet, organized by NGO NgunuZiro alongside the local environment department, concluded recently at the Tale Wildlife Sanctuary, drawing 38 participants. Across three days, attendees documented 31 butterfly and 30 bird species, with the data gathered aiding ongoing conservation efforts.
Why it matters: The event featured capacity-building sessions for nature guiding and environmental conservation awareness activities, with an emphasis on community involvement in wildlife conservation. This meet not only fosters a community of nature enthusiasts but also contributes vital data for conservation efforts.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
3.02 million – In 2020, India recorded 3.02 million preterm births. This was the highest worldwide, per a study published by The Lancet journal.