“When I think of that day, it still sends kind of shivers down my spine,” Teerath says. Then her tears silence her for a long moment. She bows her head and wipes her face with the end of her grimy sari. It all happened ten years ago, but it’s clear that the memory is still a visceral pain.
Teerath is 45 and she lives in Lachkera, a tiny farming hamlet in Chhattisgarh, the nucleus of India’s so-called Maoist belt. The region has a majority tribal population that is finding itself on the wrong side of a resource grab by multinationals backed by government paramilitary forces.
But Teerath’s story of violence has nothing to do with the Maoists, the Indian Army, the land grabs or even the local dacoits, or outlaws. Hers is a story of a different kind of violence altogether.
Blamed for mishaps
When she’s composed herself she continues. “It was about 10 in the morning, when some men came knocking on my door. They told me I had to come to a meeting. When I went to the village square, all the men had gathered there.”
It turned out that the local witchdoctor was accusing her and two other village women of being witches. He had been drinking and had said that the three friends were performing black magic.
Accusations of witchcraft are not uncommon in tribal areas like Chhattisgarh. If things go wrong in a village or family – an illness or death, bad crops, an accident – uneducated villagers can be easily persuaded to blame some vulnerable member of the community.
Sometimes the accusation can even result in a death sentence. Last year, 200 cases of witch-hunts were registered by police; most of them were in tribal areas of eastern and central India. But at the time Teerath, Shyam and Bisahin faced their ordeal, it was still relatively unknown for the police to get involved in such cases.
“They asked all three of us to hold live electric wires. They said if you are not a witch, nothing will happen to you,” Teerath says. Shyam and Bisahin are also in the room as Teerath talks of that terrible day. They’ve been silent till now, but suddenly Shyam interrupts, “Of course we would be electrocuted by a live wire! We refused to hold the wire. They pulled out our hair, hit us, abused us and forced us to grab the wire.”
The three of them start to push the ends of their saris off their arms to show their scars.
“They slapped us back to consciousness. Threw water on our faces and made us sit in the village square. All three of us in a row. They said, ‘All three of you are witches. That’s proven now.’ Then they hit us with sticks and asked us to untie our hair. They started shaving our heads right there,” Shyam says.
Then the women were stripped. Bisahin, the most timid of the three, takes up the story for the first time, her hands and body shaking as she talks. “I was menstruating then. I was bleeding all over. I was naked in front of all the men in the village. They paraded us around the village and beat us and finally left us outside the temple,” she says.
Shyam nudges her and points out how a man urinated on her when she asked for water. Only a few family members came to claim the broken and weeping girls. They were lucky that someone was willing to give them shelter after the public humiliation.
A law against evil
In the years since, a women’s rights group called the Chhattisgarh Mahila Jaagriti Sangathan (CMJS) took up their cause. The NGO managed to push through a law against witch-hunting by 2005. They helped the Lachkera three to take their case to court and remarkably, they became the first women to ever win a legal victory in such a case.
However it’s turned out to be a hollow victory. The 17 men convicted for assaulting them only served a year in prison. The women were awarded over 100,000 rupees in damages, but so far haven’t seen any money except their medical expenses.
Back in Raipur, the capital just 80 kilometres and perhaps a century away, one man is doing his best to dispel the kind of myths that give witch-hunting the support of a majority. Dr Dinesh Mishra is speaking to a packed hall of hundreds of tribal children and youths.
He holds up a sheet of white paper and squeezes a wedge of lime on to it. The audience gasps as blood red stains spread on the paper. “Just a trick” he explains, not black magic, but chemistry. He hopes to break the hold of village quacks and witchdoctors by pulling down the curtain shrouding the charlatanism they use to influence their communities.
‘Science is the key’
Dr Mishra is an ophthalmologist by day, but he’s started an NGO to bring science and education to the rural areas of Chhattisgarh. Most cases of witch-hunting he comes across are prompted by illnesses and diseases.
“If people are educated about the causes of their diseases, they will stop thinking that their neighbour is responsible for it. I try showing them viruses and bacteria through the microscope and tell them the real cause of their diseases,” he says.