India and its obsession with witch hunt. by Shaji Joseph

Years ago, as a student in Mumbai, I visited a village near Palghar as part of our SSL (Social Service League) activity. There I first heard of the concept of witch hunt which I later studied as part of my sociology lectures in college. The villagers were talking of the witch who was causing trouble to the villagers. It seemed two children had died in that village and a few others were sick. Next day I heard that they killed the witch who had been causing these troubles. After graduation I started working in the tribal villages of Jharkhand where again I came across the same concept of witch hunt and heard of incidents. On one occasion we even gave shelter to a so-called witch who came for help. Invariably always the cause of all the problems of the people has been a bad woman in the village. Searching patterns, social scientists have found that almost always the witches are women widowed or educated or strong willed who do not always agree with the elders of the society.

Social scientists asked this question, why only widowed and educated women become witches. After studying countless instances, a pattern emerged. None of these witches had anything to do with evil spirit or disease or any kind of supernatural element. It is part of a larger game of power, control and money. The witch hunt is an outcome of the struggles of people to control the property and to maintain the patriarchal power over the society. Anyone who stands in their way will be eliminated. Witch hunt is often used as an excuse to get rid of those widows who pose as a threat to the undivided family property or who have the power to alienate the property of the undivided family. In many places, educated women who question the authority of the male domination are also targeted as witches (Chaudhury, 2012; Liddle and Rai ,1998; Kelkar and Nathan, 2020). 

Researchers have found the real reason why people in the villages get sick during a particular period in the year. Even today most people in the villages relieve themselves in the fields. Building a toilet is still a taboo for many. Even after the swachata mission of our PM which saw the construction of a toilet for almost every family in India the roads leading to the village will be decorated with human waste on both sides. The sight of people walking to the field with their lotta every morning is still common in our villages. Even in the outskirts of our cities open defecation is a common sight. A lot of this faeces is eaten up by pigs and dogs but the rest remains in the field. During the rainy season it percolates into the groundwater. It invariably finds its way to their drinking water sources and causes diarrhoea and such diseases that kills a lot of people during the rainy season. Instead of changing their habits, traditions and building more toilets it was convenient to attribute the cause to those troublesome women and get rid of them. Finding a witch is easy. 

Witch hunt does not seem to be limited to the tribal or backward communities of India. The modern urban society is no different from the hinterlands of India. Take the examples of how our society loves to throw stones at and vilify women who have made a mark for themselves in India. Let us take a few examples from our recent history. Since Kangana Ranaut seems to be all over the news let us start from her. She is a self-made actress in Bollywood who defied the Bollywood mafia (As she calls them) was at the receiving end of vilification immediately after the release of the movie Manikarnika. Kangana emerged stronger from these criticisms. When she criticised the ruling family of Maharashtra the state machinery immediately swung into action to defame her and destroy her. They demolished parts of her office in Bandra. It is also alleged that women too become part of the patriarchal system and want to perpetuate the system. Kangana’s vilification of Rhea Chakravarthy through social media can be seen from that lens as well. Rhea, the surviving girlfriend of Sushant Singh Rajput seems to have been handling his immense wealth. Rhea being an outsider to the family of Sushant now has access to his wealth which the family now wants to control. We all are somehow very happy to throw stones at Rhea now because she is handling the money that the family of the actor should be getting. We are all upset that she now will get all the money. Hence all the media, some of the leading political parties, and the general public has come in support of the family and has started throwing stones at the Rhea. Based on all that we hear in the media the only conclusion that I could arrive at is that it is a classic case of witch hunt similar to what goes on in the villages of India. 

I used to wonder why India loves to hate Sonia Gandhi. In her place if we had an Indian from a respected family would we do the same to her as well? Probably we would have done the same to her as well. It looks like her major crime has been to marry Rajiv Gandhi whose immense wealth she inherited after his untimely death. How can a non-aristocratic woman that too a foreigner control so much wealth and power? Here, she not only inherited the wealth but she also inherited the power that comes with the Family.  She is a woman with unlimited power and wealth who poses a major threat to the India patriarchal society. There is a need therefore to destroy the person. The best way we know is to make a witch out of her and pelt stones. Today the media seems to be the best medium to pelt stones. Similarly, we see a similar kind of witch hunt against Smriti Irani who dared to contest an election against Rahul Gandhi the patriarch of the oldest party in India. People called her names, ridiculed her, portrayed her as of loose morals and many more. The more she asserted herself the more they threw stones at her. The witch hunt goes on.  

Let me also make a mention of a few lesser known witches of our great nation. Three women who defied the power and authority of male dominated religious places. We know of Trupti Desai from Pune, and Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini from Kerala. All three of these ladies defied the high priests of their states. In Maharashtra, Shani Shinganapur is a temple where only men have entry. Trupti Desai forcefully entered and defied the age-old tradition and domination of men. The resulting media trial of her lasted a few months. People called her all kinds of names. She is still fighting but the state has left no stone unturned to discredit her and her movement. The plight of the two ladies from Kerala who climbed the great Shabarmila has been worse. More than half the state’s population and millions outside abused them day in and day out. They were thrown out of their families. They were not allowed to enter their offices where they worked. They were thrown stones at literally. They were branded as witches. Attempts were made to kill them. These women tried to defy the high priests and immediately they were branded as witches and social media was used to pelt stones at them. What is the difference between the so called educated Malayalees and the illiterate tribal community from Palghar or between the elite of India from the Lutyens club and the illiterate unemployed youth of the city slums? Every one of them are happy throwing stones at those who oppose the tradition, who according to them are robbing the wealth of their husband’s family. 

Witch hunt continues. The last election in Kerala was fought discrediting a woman. The current election too seems to be fought on the same lines.  While in the previous election they got a Saritha Nair, a brilliant business woman who topped all her exams. She rose from penury to riches. How can a woman become successful without her engaging in unethical activities? This is a question many asked in the television channels. They accused her bribing the Chief minister. Hence while discrediting the CM they literally pelted stones at her.  Today the story repeats itself. Another woman who was close to the ruling party and has been very successful on her own is accused. She may have committed crimes. Irrespective of that, the question they ask is how can she become close to the power circles of a state? How did she accumulate so much wealth? How is she so politically powerful? In a way the media has been telling that women should not aspire to grow in their career. The question is why do they need a scapegoat or a witch every time the powerful are threatened or when you want to come to power? In all the cases I mentioned above the two-driving forces have been power and money. To control these two, you need to sacrifice a witch.

The female element of god is glorified in India more than in any other place or any other religion. Lakshmi, Durga, Kaali, and Saraswati are all forms of the powerful gods. Yet Sita had to purify herself in fire. Gandhari had to blind herself, Shakuntala was not recognized as Dushyant’s wife. Girls’ education is still a taboo for many. Women are literally a commodity in the marriage market. Honor killings are done when girls elope and not the other way around. We say we are developing, becoming more educated and liberated. But what we see around is the opposite. Trafficking of women and children are on the rise. Latest technologies are the medium through which the transactions are conducted. Bitcoins and Social media facilitate the deteriorating condition of women. Yet we say we have become more modern but the witch hunt continues. You and I find happiness in throwing stones. 

Kelkar, G., & Nathan, D. (2020). Witch Hunts: Culture, Patriarchy, and Transformation: Culture, Patriarchy and Structural Transformation. Cambridge University Press.

Chaudhuri, S. (2012). Women as easy scapegoats: Witchcraft accusations and women as targets in tea plantations of India. Violence against women18(10), 1213-1234.

Liddle, J., & Rai, S. (1998). Feminism, Imperialism and Orientalism: the challenge of the ‘Indian woman’. Women’s History Review7(4), 495-520.

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