Thousands of women, accused of sorcery, tortured and executed in Indian witch hunts

Jul 27, 2014

By Terrence McCoy


If it began like the others, the first sign that Saraswati Devi would be murdered was an accusation delivered to a shaman. Perhaps she had offended someone. Perhaps someone had fallen sick and had wondered why. Perhaps a community well had suddenly dried and someone needed blaming. Perhaps they chose her because Devi was lower caste, because she was a woman, and because they’d probably get away with it.  

The killers came for her on Saturday. Two of her sons tried to save her, but couldn’t and were beaten. Their punishment wouldn’t match Devi’s. Before the 14 villagers inflicted injuries so severe they would claim her life, they “forced her to consume human excreta,” police told the Hindustan Times.

Though shocking by nearly any standard, the murder was not unique. It was not even uncommon in pockets of rural India.

In places where superstition and vigilantism overlap and small rumors can turn deadly, nearly 2,100 people accused of witchcraft have been killed between 2000 and 2012, according to crime records gathered by the Indian newspaper Mint. Others placed the number at 2,500; others higher still. “Like the proverbial tip of a very deep iceberg, available data hides much of the reality of a problem that is deeply ingrained in society,” according to New Delhi-based Partners for Law in Development. “It is only the most gruesome cases that are reported — most cases of witch-hunting go unreported and unrecorded.”

It’s an issue that despite its prevalence is rarely covered outside of India, where it’s almost weekly newspaper fodder. Last week in Chandrapur, one man was lynched and his “woman accomplice thrashed by a mob for practicing black magic,” reported the Times of India, which said the man “was caught red-handed by the mob of over 500 villagers.” Another woman accused of witchcraft was grabbed by relatives carrying “traditional weapons” and beaten to death. Late last year, in Jharkhand, a 50-year-old woman and her daughter were hacked to death after they were accused of practicing witchcraft.

The forces driving the killings, which occur predominantly in Indian states with large tribal populations, are as much cultural as they are economic and caste-based, experts said. While the easiest explanation is that angered mobs confuse a sudden illness or crop failure with witchcraft and exact their revenge, it’s rarely that simple. Much more often, it isn’t superstition but gender and class discrimination. Those accused of sorcery often come from similar backgrounds: female, poor and of a low caste.

“Witch-hunting is essentially a legacy of violence against women in our society,” wrote Rakesh Singh of the Indian Social Institute. “For almost invariably, it is [low caste] women, who are branded as witches. By punishing those who are seen as vile and wild, oppressors perhaps want to send a not-so-subtle message to women: docility and domesticity get rewarded; anything else gets punished.”

13 comments on “Thousands of women, accused of sorcery, tortured and executed in Indian witch hunts

  • Leaving is not a solution. Where would they go? These poor people have nowhere to go in that vast but horribly superstitious society because anywhere they go, their caste status goes with them. Education is the only solution, and not education steeped in the religion of the past but education with the stress on the humanity and dignity of all men and women. When or if that will ever occur is extremely doubtful, although, like you, I am sick to my stomach hearing about the barbarity stemming mostly from religious past that still takes place round the world in the 21st century. I wish we could all do something more rather than pontificate about it all because the feeling of utter helplessness in the face of such barbarity is increasingly unbearable.

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  • Hi HenMei.

    In my mind I lump them altogether as manifestations of the same flawed thinking. It doesn’t matter if the individual is kindly disposed ( like a fellow with whom I shared a couple of exchanges recently), or ignorant villagers killing and torturing women and other vulnerable members or their community. It’s all the same! One thing leads to another and pretty soon you’re appeasing some god!

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  • 4
    Miserablegit says:

    A reminder of the evil that any religion is capable of and the sickening fact that these religions seem to encourage death by the most gruesome means possible, as if the more violent – the better.

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  • I realize this will never happen, but instead of, or in addition to having sons, were she to be acquainted with Mssrs Smith & Wesson, I suspect her attackers might be partaking of the same meal.

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  • Can’t remember exactly, (Muslim?) group of women, are being trained to safeguard the home-front with AK-47s (or some type of weapon). Right on, mama bears.

    For the OP women, agreed. Colt can back up “I aint – no – witch, got it?”

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  • Combine the horrifying statistics presented in this article and add that to the 900+ documented honor killings (experts believe the actual number is far higher) in Pakistan and you have an entire sub-continent that flat-out hates women. I don’t really buy the superstitious angle, in as much as, if these women weren’t being accused of being witches, then there woulds be some other reason for them to be brutalized and murdered.

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  • That does seem to be the case. I saw a truly horrible but poignant video on youtube once about the honor killing of a young woman living in London (Yes, that London) named Banaz. Her family was, I believe, Kurdish. At 19 or 20, her family married her off to a man who beat and raped her regularly. When she turned to her parents for help, their response was, try to be a better wife. She went to the police, whom were totally incapable of offering any help because hey, who cares about the welfare of central asian teenage girls living in the UK when there is political correctness to uphold. (The suicide rate in the UK for young women of this demographic is something like 9 times the national average leading many experts to believe that some of these suicides are, in fact, honor killings.) After finally leaving her husband, she met and fell in love with a young man of whom her parents did not approve. Her own mother and father set her up to be raped and murdered in their home by three muslim men. This was AFTER her father had made a previous attempt on her life but failed. How lonely must it feel to have no place in the world other than under the roof of the man who would be your murderer? Only religion could make someone think, “Ya know, my little girl just has to die for dating a Sunni, but I bet I’ll get a few more virgins when I get to paradise if I set her up to raped first.”

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  • superstitious angle

    A ruse, yes. The “vile, wild, poor” women are the scapegoats for any bad circumstance.

    From the full article – if witchcraft is suspected, a “doctor” is consulted, who then proceeds weeding out suspects. Jeez, this whole thing smacks of border line S M behavior. This is why the women should defend themselves, as fleeing is not an option. Granted, strong self defense could work short term, but long term?

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  • 13
    RSingh says:

    “…..No wonder people are fleeing the country.” I guess Indian flee for different reasons though. These sorts of crime do not affect urban Indian elite. Its a I have known a white family from London who flew to Canada because of increasing crime due to multiculturalism. Multicultural crime (crime motivated by the caste, gender, religion, ethnicity etc) in India, like the one being highlighted here, are thousands times higher than UK. So, the elite Indians migrate to West.

    HenMie, rightly said that the Education is the only solution. The trouble is, despite increasing prosperity of average Indians, literacy in India as per 2011 census is just 65% (about 10% higher than 2001 census though)! Considering the importance of education and the possibility of achieving 100% literacy by Indians alone, I wish to blame my own country and leadership for this failure.

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