Witches, poor communities and the Adivasis in India

Witch hunting is not an extinct practice in India with its roots going back to different parts of the early modern world Photograph:( Others )

WION Michigan, United States Sep 07, 2016, 07.12 AM (IST) Soma Chaudhuri

A few weeks ago, World Is One News (WION) published a news report on how a woman, accused of practising witchcraft, had to bear unspeakable public humiliation and abuse as a retaliatory measure. Sadly, such events while published at regular intervals have become more of a cursory glance for most readers. While some of us may be horrified at this archaic image of India, unfortunately, this is the reality for many women from India’s Adivasi communities. 

Witchcraft accusations, branding a woman as a witch, woman killed on suspicion of witchcraft are convenient rhetoric to describe Adivasi women. It fits the popular image of the community that is undeniably misconstrued, deeply prejudiced and problematic; seen as illiterate, superstitious and ignorant, accusing women of practising witchcraft sounds natural. 

However, beyond rhetoric, there are deeper structural explanations behind such accusations. For instance, often witch hunts are attributed to misogyny or other obvious factors but it seems rather simplistic and dismissive, as problems with literacy, violence against women, impoverishment exist in non-Adivasi communities as well. But not all such communities, including many Adivasi groups, experience witchcraft accusations, raising questions at the fallacy behind the logic.

As a sociologist, I am always intrigued by the social context within which events takes place. In my decade-long research on witchcraft accusations among the Adivasi workers in tea plantations of Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, I found that factors, such as the geographical location of the plantations, the violent history of the Adivasi workers in the plantation system, the complete marginalisation of Adivasi issues from the mainstream politics, and the treatment of Adivasis, particularly women, provide important clues as to why the incidents are taking place. 

I suspect a similar structural-contextual explanation behind the incident in Bihar where encroachment of mineral-rich Adivasi lands by big corporations, have created land scarcity for the Adivasis. Further, lack of medical and educational resources in these already marginalised and impoverished communities create additional vulnerabilities for their women, who are already placed in a disadvantageous social position due to their gender. This makes Adivasi women easy scapegoats during moments of stress, and a community thus finds a credible avenue to channel its frustrations.

Today, there are quite a few India states (West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, Odisha, Chhattisgarh) where the problem needs immediate attention. However, it is important not to generalise findings from region to another. In social science, we are very conscious about the social context and the limits of generalisation. However, one can summarise some general causes behind witch hunts. First, the treatment of Adivasis, especially the social isolation and marginalisation of these communities from mainstream politics, is an important cause behind these incidents. Related to it is the complete lack of resources in healthcare, education, and other facilities that are crucial for community building in Adivasi areas. 

We have laws, we have reservations; unfortunately, however, it is not implemented through good governance. Second, the constant stress and related frustrations that Adivasi communities everywhere are facing over encroachment of their land and other resources by government and corporations are factors instigating accusations. Third, the position of the Adivasi woman is perhaps the most vulnerable at the foot of this pyramid of hierarchy, where she faces both gender and ethnicity-related ostracism from members of majority Hindu community as well as by Adivasi men. 

In this regard, I have found self-help groups to be quite powerful in resisting witchcraft accusations. Women in such groups collectively come together against witch hunts, and such campaigns have been found to be sustainable in the long run. North Bengal People’s Development Center, an NGO in Jalpaiguri, is doing very important work in this regard.  

Finally, next time media comes across a report on the witch hunt, instead of dismissing it as an Adivasi problem, it should think about the bigger issues that are prompting such violence in the first place. We need to bring into the picture various government agencies and its apparatuses, such as the local counselor, the local Member of Parliament, and the police chief. Volunteers at the local NGOs can also play a significant role to curb down the menace. Most importantly, we need to show empathy towards one of India’s much-discriminated social groups.



Soma Chaudhuri

Soma Chaudhuri is a sociologist at Michigan State University, USA. She works in the areas of witchcraft accusations, violence against women and social movements.