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Women in east India continue to struggle against witch-hunting

A street theater group at the Indian village of Birbans raises awareness about the social impact of accusing women of ‘witchcraft.’ (AN photo)
NEW DELHI: Since a mob lynching of five alleged witches in Kajiya Maraytoli village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, nearly 30 male villagers are behind bars, another 30 have fled, and those still around prefer to lie low.
Those left in the village of around 200 people are mostly women. Kajiya Maraytoli grabbed public attention on Aug. 5, 2015, when five women were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and beaten to death by a mob of male villagers for alleged witchcraft.
Two years on, normalcy is yet to return. “We fought hard with the villagers and tried stopping them, arguing with them,” Usha Khalkha, 25, who lost her mother-in-law that night, told Arab News.
“I confronted the crowd and asked why my mother (in-law) is being branded a witch, but they pushed me and my husband aside.”
A few days before the lynching, a teenage boy died due to abdominal pain. His parents took him to a local sorcerer, and he blamed the sickness on witchcraft.
“This belief in the existence of witchcraft is the reason why this village suffers today, and most of the men are either jailed or absconders, even after two years,” said Khalkha.
Chootni Mahto, 58, has been combating this medieval belief for the last two decades in Birbans village, some 200 km away from Kajiya Maraytoli.
In 1996, Mahto was beaten by villagers for alleged witchcraft and left for dead. A passer-by found her and saved her life.
Her husband abandoned her, siding with the villagers. But her brother came to her rescue and gave her a plot of land on the outskirts of the village to build a small hutment.
The hutment today serves as a rescue center for many women in her village and surrounding areas.
As part of the Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC), an NGO set up in 1991, Mahto has rehabilitated more than 200 women who are now part of a movement called the Superstition Elimination Mission.
“Change is important in society. FLAC gave me a new purpose in life. I don’t have money, but I’ve acquired new resolve now,” she told Arab News.
“The main reason why villagers branded me a witch was that compared to others in the village, we were financially sound. They accused me of being a witch when my parents-in-law passed away, blaming me for their death.”
FLAC founder Prem Chand, 60, told Arab News: “The Jharkhand government passed legislation against witch-hunting in 1999 after our campaign, but the law isn’t enough to fight this social evil. We need greater awareness.”
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, around 2,000 people, mostly women, were killed between 2000 and 2012 on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.
Last year, Jharkhand set up special fast-track courts to deal with cases related to the torture and murder of women labeled witches.
“I really want this system of branding a woman a witch to end, but it’s not going away,” said Mahto.
Khalkha said: “I’ll stand witness in court and identify the villagers who’ve been arrested. I don’t believe there’s anything called witches. If witches were so powerful they’d hide from danger, but that hasn’t happened. The women couldn’t hide from their attackers.”

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