Rhys Blakely, The Times (London), November 24, 2008
Witchcraft is being put on the curriculum for India’s primary schoolchildren in an effort to debunk superstitions that are behind scores of gruesome murders every year.
A belief in witches and the evils purportedly wrought by them – from famine to sporting failure – is widespread among tribal communities in the country’s impoverished rural hinterland. It is estimated that 750 people, mostly elderly women, have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal since 2003.
In one the most horrific recent cases, a family of four of the Santhal tribe in Assam were stoned and buried alive for allegedly cursing a relative of the village chief. At least one attack in Assam culminated in the severed heads of two “witches” being taken as trophies and paraded in the streets.
Advocates for a change to the syllabus say that beliefs must be altered early if India’s witch-hunts are to be stamped out. However, the approach is being challenged by academics who say that witch-hunts are an economic phenomenon. Pointing to modern day Africa and Renaissance Europe, they argue that pensions, not education, are the best means of curtailing a belief in black magic.
Studies suggest that more “witches” are identified in lean years. In the 16th and 17th centuries, an estimated one million women were killed in Europe for dabbling in the black arts. The height of the slaughter coincided with a “little ice age” that made life much tougher, the historian Wolfgang Behringer has suggested.
Today, in the Meatu district of Tanzania, half of all murders are “witch-killings” and almost all of the victims are old women from poor households.
Raymond Fisman, a professor at Columbia University, told a recent seminar: “In Meatu, there are veritable witch epidemics now and again – certainly any time there is a bad crop year. Witches are the scapegoat of first resort. He suggested that “witches” were killed to make resources stretch farther. “Who are you going to knock off? You want the person who is the greatest consumer of household resources relative to that which they produce . . . it turns out that it’s grandma.”
Thus, the quickest way to eradicate witch-hunts is to introduce pensions for elderly women – to transform grandma from an economic burden to a wealth generator.
The tactic is credited with virtually ending “witch-killings” in the North Province region of South Africa in the 1990s.