Thursday, 24 April 2008

Dangerous Dalit Women and Witch-Hunters

by Meena Kandasamy in Ultra Violet, 14 April 2008

ON MARCH 28, Lalpari Devi, a 45-year-old Dalit woman was accused of being a witch by caste-Hindu, feudal villagers in Bihar who mercilessly beat her up, paraded her through the streets, tied her to a palm tree, cut her hair and smeared her face with limestone paste. She was saved from certain death by the timely arrival of the police. Lalpari somehow managed to survive the ordeal of social censure and hysteric, mob-driven humiliation. Many of her sisters have not been that lucky.

According to conservative (official, and outdated) estimates, 2,556 women were branded as witches and killed in India between 1987 and 2003. From 1991 to 2000, over 522 cases of witch-hunting have been registered in Bihar alone. In the same decade, about 300 people were done to death in the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh on the suspicion that they were practising black magic. Bihar, for all its backwardness, was the first state in India to pass a law against witch-hunting in 1999. Jharkhand followed up with its anti-witch-hunt law in 2001, Chhattisgarh in 2005 and Rajasthan in 2006. An essential excerpt of the legalese: “a crime would be considered to have been committed when any person or community intentionally or inadvertently abets, conspires, aids and instigates the identification of a woman as a witch leading to her mental and physical torture and humiliation.” What is wonderful on paper rarely gets translated into something effective in practice. Besides, the threat of punishment and conviction hasn’t been a deterrent since the perpetrators of the crime (always male, almost always caste-Hindus who enjoy political clout) know that they will not be brought to book for what will be seen as an incidence of mob fury. Sometimes, it is the knowledge that the state will stand by them.

This free hand gives a free run to their imaginations, and witch-hunts have grown macabre by the day. The helpless ‘witches’ are hounded and punished by being stripped naked, paraded around the villages, their hair is burnt off or their heads tonsured, their faces blackened, their noses cut off, their teeth pulled out (they are supposedly defanged) so that they can no longer curse, they are whipped, they are branded, sometimes, they are forced to eat human faeces and finally, they are put to death (here again the Indian imagination takes over: the victim is hanged, impaled, hacked, lynched or buried alive). And you have got it all wrong if you assumed that such stomach-churning, toe-curling torture is done in dingy, shadowy places: vast, open village lands come in particularly handy as favoured locations, and the cheering crowd can fill a modest stadium. Where these women are left to live, they are considered inauspicious and malevolent, socially ostracized and forced to forgo their livelihood. Where they don’t end up losing their life, they are made to lose their mental balance.

It is no surprise that almost all the ‘witches’ have been Dalit or Adivasi women. Nowhere else in Indian history can we see such an explicit tie-up between patriarchal oppression and casteist subjugation. Witch-hunting is a powerful tool in the hands of caste-Hindu men who want to persecute assertive Dalit and Adivasi women who might directly challenge caste hegemony, or indirectly subvert local power equations.

Because names and places and stories speak stronger than statistics, here’s a sample: A Dalit woman, Badam Bai was beaten to death by four men at Bhunein village in Sultanpur in Kota district. Lajwanti Harijan of Kamolar village in the same district met with a similar fate. When a Dalit woman in Tarra village in Raipur district claimed rights to her dead husband’s land, she was killed after being branded a witch by her brother-in-law. Memki Bai Bhajaat of Varlipahada village and Sakri Bai Meena of Sailana village of Udaipur district were branded witches because of property disputes. Subhadra Basumatray, a 40-year-old Bodo woman in Tilapara village of Goalpara district in Assam, denounced rituals conducted by witch-doctors. Just as she started to voice her dissent, she ended with a fractured arm, broken ribs and bruised legs. Her own family members colluded with others to declare her a witch because she had demanded a share in her father’s property. An Adivasi woman panchayat president in Udaipur district in Rajasthan was declared a witch by caste-Hindu villagers who wanted to settle political scores. In neighbouring Nepal, a 52-year-old Dalit woman Dayawati Urab and her daughter Sunita Kumari Urab of Sunsari village were stripped naked, beaten, and forced to eat human faeces because villagers suspected them of indulging in sorcery.

Such humiliations, lynchings and killings, done with nauseous ingenuity haven’t spared old women either. In November 2004, Dhoopi Raigar, a 70-year-old Dalit woman from Jita Ka Dalda in Tonk district was forcibly dragged out of her son’s house by some villagers who cut off her hair and attempted to immolate her. Her son’s increasing prosperity infuriated the ‘upper’ castes who sought to prevent it by accusing Dhoopi of being a witch. A 65-year-old Dalit woman labourer Pochamma and her 70-year-old husband Sailu were burnt to death in Ulitimaipalli village near Hyderabad because they were suspected of using black magic to kill cattle. In Gaandi village in Angara Block in Ranchi, two old Dalit widows Jeetan Devi and Dubhan Devi were tortured and held responsible for the death (due to malaria) of two children. The women were tonsured, beaten, paraded and burnt to death. Before the final disgrace, earthen pitchers were broken on their heads. As recent as August 2007, Bali Bharu Doli, an 85-year-old Dalit woman in Rajasthan was mercilessly beaten and forced to keep a burning coal in her mouth on the suspicion that she was a witch. Barely a month later, on Sep 2, 2007, two elderly women in their 60s were murdered by their sons in Orissa’s Keonjhar district for allegedly practicing sorcery.

Where do these cruel and perverse caste-Hindu witch-hunters get the moral high ground to condemn Dalit and Adivasi women? Revolutionary Dr. Ambedkar observed that the Atharva Veda itself is “nothing but a collection of sorcery, black-magic and medicine,” so witchery is not something new to the ‘upper’ castes. And shouldn’t the caste-Hindus be reminded of Joan Mencher’s sociological insight into sorcery in Travancore, that “some social control over the excesses of the high-caste landlords was exercised through the thread of Pulaya black magic” since Pulaya medicine men and witch doctors were believed to possess the “powers of bringing malaise and misfortune on wrongdoers, especially the cruel landlords and wicked bossmen.” Shouldn’t the oppressor caste-Hindus be ashamed that Dalits could have come up the idea of black magic and communion with the spirit world only in order to subvert the caste system where the priestly caste alone enjoyed the hotline to God?

It is true that lack of adequate health care systems have spawned the growth of alternative beliefs and faith healing, and consequently witch-doctors. But that is not the reason why Dalit and Adivasi women have been singled out for public humiliation. By punishing those who are seen as vile and wild, oppressors want to send a not-so-subtle message to the women of their own castes: docility and domesticity gets rewarded, anything else gets punished. This has been the legacy of violence against women.

When sin meets superstition, as in witch-hunting, the victims are also single (read widowed / deserted / divorced) women of a certain age who are no longer burdened with reproductive duties. The word ‘witch’ is thrust on these ‘dangerous’ women who asserted their entitlement to rights and thus challenged patriarchal and caste supremacist diktats. Dalit or Adivasi women who dared to contest elections and directly challenged the political power of the landed caste-Hindus have been labeled hags. They have been accused of exercising black magic when in fact they have only been exercising their fundamental rights. Witchcraft, when used by brutal caste-Hindus in the modern context, has come to signify women’s resistance to oppression, and the price they have paid for it.

Also see My Name is Radharani Ari and This is How My Consciousness Was Raised and 'The Great Caliban: The struggle against the rebel body' and 'All the World Needs a Jolt: Social Movements and Political Crisis in Medieval Europe' both from Caliban & the Witch.