From Superstition to Savagery

Pusanidevi Manjhi, pictured with husband Gooda and their six children, was accused of being a witch by a landowner whose paddy crop was destroyed by fire. She was tortured and held captive for four days.
Pusanidevi Manjhi, pictured with husband Gooda and their six children, was accused of being a witch by a landowner whose paddy crop was destroyed by fire. She was tortured and held captive for four days. (By Rama Lakshmi For The Washington Post)

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By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 8, 2005

PALANI, India -- At sundown, Pusanidevi Manjhi recalled, nine village men stormed into her house shouting, "Witch, witch!" and dragged her out by her hair as her six small children watched helplessly.

"This woman is a witch!" the men announced to the villagers, said Manjhi, 36. She said they tied her ankles together and locked her in a dark room.

"They beat me with bamboo sticks and metal rods and tried to pull my nails out. 'You are a witch, admit it,' they screamed at me again and again," Manjhi said, tearfully recalling her four days of captivity in June.

"They accused me of casting an evil spell on their paddy crop that was destroyed in a fire. I begged them and told them I was not a witch," she said, showing wounds on her legs, thighs, hips and shoulders one recent morning in this village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

After a police investigation, the men who attacked Manjhi were arrested. An official said that the attack was spurred by a powerful landowner who owned rice paddies in the village and used local superstition to mask his attempts to maintain control.

Threats and charges of witchcraft occur in a number of Indian states that have large tribal populations with traditional beliefs about witches. Indian newspapers periodically publish reports about women who, after being accused of being witches, have been beaten, had their heads shaved or had strings of shoes hung around their necks. Some have been killed.

In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the inability to give birth to a son. But social analysts and officials said that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for carrying out violence against women.

"Superstition is only an excuse. Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes it is used to punish women who question social norms," said Pooja Singhal Purwar, an official at the Jharkhand social welfare department.

"Women from well-to-do homes in the village are never branded witches," Purwar said. "It is always the socially and economically vulnerable women who are targeted and boycotted."

Purwar said she sees an average of five women a month being denounced as witches and tortured in rural Jharkhand. Her department has drawn up a public information project to oppose the practice, providing information at village fairs and conducting street performances and puppet shows. Police at the local level have been alerted to track the cases of women who are attacked, she said.

While Manjhi was imprisoned by her captors, her husband, a farmhand, sought help from the village elders, who called a meeting to determine if Manjhi was a witch and summoned a witch doctor for verification. But by then, word spread and the police arrived.

The nine men were charged under a Jharkhand state law that forbids accusing people of being witches. One of them was Gahan Lal, the man whose paddy had caught fire. Lal later confessed to torturing Manjhi.

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