An Odisha court Friday sent nine people to the gallows for killing three members of a family in the tribal-dominated Rayagada district in 2016 over suspicion of witchcraft. It was the first instance of a court handing out capital punishment for murders over sorcery in the state. Although the death sentence requires confirmation by the Odisha High Court, this verdict will have sent a stern message that dehumanisation of any person or brutal torture over superstition and blind beliefs would not be tolerated.
The Rayagada case, in particular, was nothing short of grotesque. The victims—an ageing couple and their daughter—were not only brutalised but had pesticides injected in their eyes and private parts. The perpetrators did this right in front of another daughter of the family.
Witch-hunting, as a so-called practice to eliminate women branded evil, existed in many countries but progressive and rational societies managed to dump them in the past. Not India. According to a report, more than 2,200 women have been killed in the country over witchcraft charges in the last 15 years. In Odisha alone, more than 400 women were killed. About eight states have dedicated legal instruments to check such violence but the outcome has not been encouraging despite having preventive strategies on the ground.
Though police can and must lead the fight through increased use of the legal provisions, we need better understanding of socioeconomic causes which lead to the persistence of such practices in India. A cursory glance at the tribal pockets of Odisha, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Chhattisgarh which report such cases explains a lot. The truth is ‘witches’ exist in the collective psychology of a section of the society where backwardness is all pervasive even after seven decades of Independence.
Absence of education, basic health services, rationality and prevalence of gender conflicts are the real culprits that need to be hunted down first.