Acting on the instructions of a self-appointed “goddess,” a mob in the Indian state of Assam accused a woman in her 60s of witchcraft, dragged her from her home, stripped her and beheaded her.
As gruesome as the crime was, it was just one of thousands in India over the past decade and one of about a hundred in the past five years in Assam, a largely tribal state on India’s northeast border.
Last July, a woman in Bihar, Saraswati Devi, was beaten to death by villagers after they forced her to consume human excrement, according to the Hindustan Times. In 2013, in the state of Jharkhand, 54 women accused of witchcraft were killed.
The woman killed Monday, according to India’s NDTV, was an Adivasi, an ethnic group originally transported to Assam by the British to work on the region’s tea plantations. The Adivasi people, who tend to be poor and uneducated, have been the targets of mob violence for years from various tribal groups in the country.
Police investigating the murder Monday in the village of Bhimajuli told NDTV that a woman named Anima Ronghanti, 35, “who claims to be a goddess,” gathered people at a temple and told them the Adivasi woman, identified variously as Puni, Purni or Moni Orang was a witch who would bring bad luck to the village and had been responsible for people falling ill.
About 200 people then descended on her home and attacked her in front of her family.
“The attackers armed with machetes and other crude implements descended on the village and took away Moni Orang from her house and then brutally killed her,” senior police official Manabendra Dev Roy told AFP. “She was decapitated and her limbs were chopped off.”
A villager on local television reportedly said that “Moni was a witch and had cast evil spells on her enemies. … There is no place for such sorcerers and so her killing is justified.”
It was unclear from news reports whether anyone has been arrested and charged with the murder but the Hindustan Times reported that seven villagers have been arrested.
The scourge of witch hunts has been well documented in studies and investigations in India and is even said to be on the increase.
“It generally happens in places where there is almost no economic development, with little or no access to basic education and health care,” scholar Rakesh K. Singh wrote in a 2011 study.
“In this kind of an atmosphere, people tend to develop very strong superstitious beliefs and anything bad that might befall these villagers like bad crop, diseases, sudden and unexplained death of someone in the family, or drying of well tend to be considered the work of some evil ‘witch.’ Thus begins a witch hunt to locate the person responsible.”
The killings often involve tribal rivalries. In December, more than 70 Adivasis were killed in Assam allegedly by a group called the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Five Bodo militants were killed in retaliation. The Bodo are another ethnic group in northeast India that is seeking a separate territory.
Victims are often lower caste and almost always poor. Sometimes their own relatives conspire against them. In October, a woman named Dukalheen Bai died after she was stripped, beaten and tortured for hours by her brother-in-law and other family members, the BBC reported. The brother-in-law accused her of making his son ill through witchcraft. That occurred in the state of Chhattisgarh in central India.
“My mother was beaten up very badly,” Bai’s son Dukalheen told the BBC. “She kept screaming but the entire village just watched.”