or when resistant to uninvited male sexual advances, or holding land being eyed by "influential villagers"
London -- Wednesday March 21 2007
Sona's mother was murdered and dismembered; Kalo was attacked with a saw and scarred for life. Hundreds of other Indian women are killed or disfigured every year after being branded witches by their neighbours. Raekha Prasad reports
A 65-year old Indian woman bears the scars of a witch-hunting attack in eastern India. Photograph: Sanjay Jha
When I first encounter Sona Bindya, this small 10-year-old girl is perching barefoot on a mound of rubbish, squinting into the sunlight by the side of a cratered road. Beckoned to the car, she sits primly on the back seat in her grubby clothes, confidently answering my questions. Her nickname is Pinky, she says. Except for a mouth full of adult teeth, she looks young for her age.
Until a few months ago, Sona lived in a one-room hut in an unremarkable slum hamlet of just 12 buildings with her mother, Ramani. Ramani had been bringing Sona up alone since her husband died from an unknown illness. Every day at 6am Ramani left home for her job as a labourer (painting the factories in an industrial area in the eastern Indian state of Jharkand), returning home 12 hours later.
One night in January, Ramani and Sona were fast asleep when two neighbours broke down their rickety front door and dragged Ramani out of bed. As Sona fled to a neighbour's hut, she saw one of the men's hands cover her mother's mouth and another close round her throat. Next morning, no one stopped Sona from seeing the pools of blood that had darkened on her doorstep. On the railway line 100m away, Ramani's mutilated body had been dumped on the tracks. Her severed limbs pointed in opposite directions.
Ramani's death was not reported by India's rolling news stations and fast-proliferating newspapers, because, sadly, there was nothing distinctively "new" about the way in which she had died. Specifically, her death was the result of being branded a witch.
Police in Jharkand receive around five reports a month of women denounced as witches, but nationally the figure is believed to run to thousands. These incidents usually occur when a community faces misfortune such as disease, a child's death or failing crops, and a woman is suddenly scapegoated. Those whose lives are spared face humiliation, torture and banishment from their village: some are forcibly stripped and paraded in public; some have their mouths crammed with human excreta or their eyes gouged out. The belief is that shaming a woman weakens her evil powers. And because these crimes are sanctioned by the victim's community, experts say many of them go unreported.
Ramani and her neighbours belong to one of the country's many distinct tribes, who speak their own language and hold animist beliefs, insulating them from mainstream Indian society. The country's "tribals" are among its poorest people, often living without access to doctors, schools or electricity. People in the neighbourhood are predominantly of the Ho tribe, having migrated from their ancestral forests to the fringes of this part of urban India, carrying with them superstitions and a belief in the supernatural.
Although police have arrested three men in the hamlet for her murder, none of the locals condemns Ramani's killing as a crime. Sona now lives with another family in a nearby village, and as I walk with her through her old neighbourhood, other residents avert their eyes. In the aftermath of the murder, many have fled until the dust settles. Those who remain are evasive. Even the murdered woman's own cousin denies any knowledge of what happened. He says he came back to the slum at 10pm that night. "I went straight to sleep so I didn't hear anything and I don't know anything," he says.
Ramani was killed because she had been deemed a malignant force, wreaking death and misfortune on the hamlet. When a child fell ill in the slum, diagnosis and solutions were sought, as usual, from the resident medicine man or ojha. The ojha is a central figure in the community, believed to have insights into evil forces affecting the health and wealth of the village. When his magical incantations fail to cure a patient, he turns to divination, gathering together water, oil, leaves, twigs, vermilion, a mirror and dung, asking the villager for the payment necessary for him to enter a trance. He then hints at, or directly names, the "culprit" behind the illness. In this case, the ojha told the father of the sick child that Ramani was to blame, says Sona, and claimed that taking her life would lift the curse.
This violence is part of an India that has perhaps been obscured by stories of its software boom and nuclear prowess; a culture sometimes forgotten amid news of such successes as the steel company Tata, which recently swallowed British giant Corus.
Caught between the clash of tribal India and the modern-day nation is Shubhra Dwivedy, chief executive of Seeds, a Jharkand-based development organisation that focuses on girls and women. In the decade that Dwivedy has shuttled between the villages and her urban office, she has seen no decline in witch-hunting. "It's been so deeply ingrained for generations, socially and culturally, that it can't just be undone," she says.
A Seeds report explains that the "witch" label is also used against women as a weapon of control; branding a woman is a way to humiliate her if she has refused sexual advances or tried to assert herself. And the deep fear of witches can also be whipped up to grab a woman's land or settle old family scores. "It is easy for influential villagers to pay the ojha to have a woman branded to usurp her property," states the report.
These are the tactics that robbed Kalo Devi of her land and home. Crouching outside her daughter's house in a village in Jharkand's rugged interior, the 65-year-old widow pulls her sari blouse from one shoulder to reveal scar tissue knotted like bark. She holds out her left hand, disfigured by wounds, and traces the dark scar that runs across her nose and cheek.
She was attacked at noon, she says, just after lunch in September 2004 in the village where she had raised her daughter and lived with her husband until his death 20 years ago. As Kalo squatted in her mud home, washing up, her neighbour Jogan burst in brandishing a saw. "He attacked my shoulder; then tried to cut off my nose. Blood filled my mouth and I couldn't shout," Kalo says, her voice shaking with the memory. "I fell on the ground and he kept hitting me. I passed out so I don't know how my hand got cut."
A few days before the attack, Jogan had branded Kalo a witch in front of the entire village, and accused her of causing the death of his newborn baby. His outburst was an escalation in a litany of abuse, following her repeated requests for him to stop grazing his cattle on her land. During an earlier argument he had told her: "I will graze my cows in your field and cut you into pieces if you shout to stop me."
Kalo is unequivocal about why she was branded. "There were no men in my house. That's why this happened. He deliberately brought his cattle to my field because he thought that he could dominate me."
Although Jogan was arrested and charged, he was granted bail and is living locally again. With no police protection, Kalo fears he may succeed in killing her. That is why she has abandoned her home and land to live with her son-in-law and daughter 20km away. "What choice do I have?" she asks.
This question has occupied the lawyer Girija Shankar Jaiswal for more than a decade. As secretary of the Free Legal Aid Committee - an advocacy group that represents disadvantaged groups in Jharkand - he has instituted legislation that specifically outlaws witch-hunting in the state and its neighbour, Bihar. Although this has not succeeded in punishing the perpetrators - fewer than 1% of reported cases lead to a conviction - Jaiswal claims that it has helped instil fear into potential offenders and police. "Now an officer has a duty to prosecute, despite his personal prejudices. And if a woman can put you in jail, then she becomes a powerful woman."
But for someone like Ramani, the law could not legislate against beliefs. The fear now is for the life of her daughter, the sole witness to her murder. Sona saw four men standing watch outside her hut when she fled her mother's attackers within, and they threatened to kill her if she gave their names to the police. She did so anyway. They are all still living in the hamlet.
· Some names have been changed.