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The truth about witches


EASY TARGETS: At Bihar's Sonepur Mela, a woman branded as a 'daayan', is 'treated' by an 'ojha' (witch doctor). (Left) A still from 'Ek Thi Daayan'

With witch hunts a reality in many Indian states, activists say Bollywood’s portrayal of daayans as evil personified needs to change.

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti is one angry witch. The reason for her anger is the movie Ek Thi Daayan which she believes is perpetuating the stereotypes that daayans (witches) are evil.

Chakraverti, a Wiccan priestess (scholar of the ancient discipline of Wicca, the study of witchcraft) and a social activist, turned down a request to endorse the movie because, as she told director Kannan Iyer, she would have nothing to do with "a regressive thought process". Says Chakraverti, "I saw the synopsis and the promos on the net. The portrayal was so negative. One actor is spouting stuff like daayans are beautiful and have long hair but are evil. He says they can be found in any high-rise building.

Imagine the scope for mischief. " Chakraverti, who says she has been working against such a mindset for decades, has shot off a letter of protest to President Pranab Mukherjee. The letter is now with the National Commission for Women.

Despite the best efforts of activists to dispel myths about the existence of dayaans, the practice continues in India. Just last week, four people were arrested in Jharkhand's Latihar district for beating up a woman and piercing her tongue with a needle after branding her a witch.

According to the National Crime Research Bureau, women are targeted as witches in as many as 17 states in India and since 2008, 768 women have been murdered for allegedly practising witchcraft.

Legal resource group Partners for Law in Development has been working in Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa on witch hunting. Its director Madhu Mehra says women are targeted for reasons that have nothing to do with black magic. "They are branded as witches for motives that are material, and have little to do with superstition, " she says. Single women and widows are dubbed witches to grab their land. And it's easy enough to blame a death due to illness or a crop failure on an "evil eye". "It is, in fact, gender-based violence that might result in brutal abuse, eviction from land, property or village, and sometimes murder, " she says.

Mehra too is rather upset with the film's makers. "When a film on dayaans is made, one needs to be mindful of the social context. Talk about it and portray it but don't glorify it, or endorse the correlation between evil forces and women. There has to be some level of social responsibility because this is not fiction or fantasy. It is reality in large parts of India, where women get lynched, mutilated, paraded naked, even forced to eat excreta to exorcise the evil attributed to them, " says Mehra.

The film's director Kannan Iyer, however, defends the film. "It's just a harmless, supernatural thriller inspired by folklore and adapted into an urban milieu, " he says. "Witches do play an important role in the film but that would not justify women being targeted as witches. If you make a film on a murderer would that mean all men will be viewed as murderers?" he says. "Let people see the film and then pass judgement on it. "
Indira Pancholi of Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti that works in Central Rajasthan says family disputes often lead to a young girl being branded a witch. "It often happens because men don't like the idea of women from the weaker sections trying to improve their lot, " she says.

She cites the case of a middle-aged woman, Kamala, from Manpura in Tonk zila. One day, some men in a tractor drove up to her house, dragged her out, stripped her and beat her up. To humiliate her further, chilli powder and a bottle were pushed up her vagina. "Soon her own husband and son began calling her a witch and Kamala was hounded out of her home. She now fends for herself on the outskirts of the village. Many cases like these go unreported, " says Pancholi, whose organisation helps victims who have been forced out of their homes to get jobs and, if possible, pensions.

Neelu, 45, who works with non-governmental organisation Mahila Jagran Kendra in Patna, says more than 150 cases of witch hunts in 20 zilas of Patna have been reported in the last year. "Since we started campaigning against such practices in the villages in 2005, some women are gathering courage to speak up and threaten the ojhas (witch doctors) who try to intimidate them, " she says.

Neelu mentions the case of a Dalit woman who was branded a witch by a Yadav family only because she told a young boy not to climb a tree. "He didn't listen to her, fell down and died. Within no time, the boy's family landed in her house and asked her to bring him back to life. " When she couldn't, they raped her and pushed a rod into her vagina. Later, with the support of the NGO, the woman filed a first information report and had the men arrested.

"It is tragic that the law against witch hunting, which was passed in 1999, only jails the culprits for three months and fines them Rs 1, 000. The law has to be harsher, " says Neelu. And filmmakers should be more responsible, says she and several other activists.

"I'm worried about such portrayals of women, especially in a country like ours where women are hounded and declared witches for frivolous reasons, " says Chakraverti. She talks about the 800 witch hunts in the last five years alone in which women were tortured, molested, raped and killed after being branded witches.

"After the Nirbhaya case we thought we could work to empower women with renewed vigour, but a regressive film like this will open the floodgates of superstition, " says the 62-year-old who learnt about Wicca (witchcraft) as part of her study of ancient civilisations in Canada as a teenager.

"Witches were practitioners of Wicca, also called the craft of the wise. It is a system that empowers women to be independent and strong, " she says, adding that it was the patriarchal mindset that did Wicca in.

In 1987, after news of witch hunts reached their peak, Chakraverti declared herself a witch at a press conference and spoke about the positives of Wicca. "We have since been working to educate women and men about Wicca, going to villages and helping victims who've been tortured and humiliated after being branded witches, " she says.

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