Saira Kurup, Times of India Feb 7, 2010
RANCHI: On January 2, 2010, three masked men barged into Pinki’s home in Tapodana village, Ranchi district and killed her parents on the charges of practicing witchcraft. Pinki, 14, and her younger brother are now in hiding because she too has been named as a dayan or witch.
Sushila Devi, 45, tries to hide the injury on her head with her sari pallu as she describes how she and four other village women, mostly widows, were beaten, paraded naked and forced to eat excreta in Patharghatia village in Deoghar district, Jharkhand on October 17, 2009.
They were accused of being dayans. “There were at least 10,000 villagers watching when these women were beaten up. Word had spread that the dayans would be dancing,” says Deepak Kumar Deo, legal trainer with an NGO, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) in Ranchi.
Pinky and Sushila are lucky to be alive because scores of women are killed on charges of witchcraft in states like Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal annually. Between 2001 and 2008, 452 women were killed in Jharkhand, according to a report by an NGO, Association for Social and Human Activities. Jharkhand’s economic backwardness and a low literacy rate of 53.6% (38.9% among women) make for a fertile environment that breeds superstition, illiteracy and violence against women. Even the death of an animal becomes a trigger for condemning some poor woman as a dayan. Often, it’s an excuse to grab property or settle scores with someone.
Although Jharkhand has a witchcraft prevention Act — under which the maximum punishment is a one-year imprisonment, its implementation is still awaited. RLEK chairman Avdhash Kaushal says, “Lack of access to justice is the main problem. But there are many other barriers too, such as of distance, of attitude towards rural people.”
Keeping that in mind, RLEK organized a legal literacy programme in a village near Ranchi last month, during which hundreds of women were able to voice their grievances to Supreme Court and High Court judges, state bureaucrats, and officials of the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa). Reacting to Pinky’s and Sushila’s cases, HC Justice M Y Eqbal said while witch-hunting should invoke stricter penalties, it is more important to spread awareness.
But economic insecurity is also a tough enemy. Many women at the village meet complained about not receiving their widow pensions and not getting work under NREGA. Those who do get work said they are paid less than men. Despite their trauma, Safina Bibi, Sagrina Bibi, Gulinoor Bibi and Majidan Bibi — the other four women who were assaulted along with Sushila Devi – are more concerned about getting a “lal card” or the ration card.
However, there’s now a glimmer of hope, with Union woman and child development minister Krishna Tirath saying recently that there would soon be a law against witch-hunting. But would that ensure justice for the likes of Pinki and Sushila? That, unfortunately, still seems a long way off.