Nilimoni Kumar’s dark eyes dart around and the gold bracelets adorning her thin arms jangle as she wipes away the tears. “Every time
I pass by my neighbours’ courtyard, they grab their kids and take them inside. I hear them saying, ‘go quickly, the witch is coming’. It is really upsetting.” Dressed in a simple, white sari decorated with green print, Nilimoni’s voice cracks as she explains how she is ostracised by her community in Tola, a village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

Scared that she may have to face more problems if she is found meeting foreigners, she agrees – via a mediator who works for a charity – to meet us outside her village. “When I was accused of being a witch, no one in the village helped me,” she adds sadly.

Until two years ago the mother-of-four Nilimoni, 56, used to live a modest but happy life. Her husband, Kumar was a mason who also worked as a farmer on the small piece of agricultural land she inherited from her parents. Although they earned less than a dollar a day (Dh3.67), it was enough to make ends meet in impoverished Tola in the tribal belt of Jharkhand, a poor area made up of scattered forests and mud-house villages.

But her life changed dramatically after her husband died suddenly a couple of days after complaining of stomach ache in late 2011.
“I was shocked and devastated. A few days after my husband died, my cousin’s wife fell ill, displaying similar symptoms to those of my husband – severe stomach pain and vomiting – and my in-laws started accusing me of practising witchcraft,’’ says Nilimoni. “Although my cousin’s wife survived, they blamed me
for my husband’s death and her sickness.’’

The widow could not believe what was happening to her life. Having lost her husband of about 35 years and now forced to rely on her farm-worker sons for support, she pleaded her innocence to her in-laws.

A few days after the allegations, her house was attacked at midnight by three men armed with axes while she was asleep. The assailants fled when her 22-year-old son threatened them. “I am sure they wanted to kill me,” she says. “Since then my life has never been the same. I’ve been branded a witch and I am shunned by all the people in my community.’’

She is lucky to have escaped alive. A staggering 768 women have been murdered for “practising witchcraft” in various villages across India since 2008, according to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau data. Among the states, Odisha and its neighbouring Jharkhand, home to several rural traditional communities, were listed as areas where there was a spike in the number of such cases in recent years. “I still live in fear every single day not knowing when I might be attacked again. To this day, I don’t know what killed my husband,’’ says Nilimoni.

India is not the only country where women are branded witches and killed. In February last year, CNN reported that a 40-year-old mother of two was burned alive in Nepal after being branded a witch.

However, going by the number of cases recorded, the phenomenon is most prevalent in India. where echoing the times of Medieval Europe when women were drowned and burnt at the stake as witches, thousands of Indian women are accused of witchcraft every year and used as scapegoats to justify random events like a bad harvest, an unexpected death or a severe epidemic in a village.

Social outcasts

More than just a relic of traditional beliefs, witchcraft accusations carry heavy social consequences – the alleged witches are assaulted by angry mobs determined to rid the villages off their ‘evil’ powers. The victims are savagely beaten, tortured and sometimes brutally murdered. Those who survive are 
forced to spend the rest of their existence as social outcasts with no chance of rebuilding their lives.

The ‘lucky ones’ – who often undergo humiliating and seemingly illogical tests to prove their innocence – are welcomed back by their families, but this is rare. Those not so fortunate live in isolated huts on the fringes
of villages and are banned from joining in
any social gatherings, like Meena Mahato,
a 60-year-old woman from the rural village of Bhaluk Pahari in Jharkhand. Thirteen years ago, her eldest son died at the age of 27 following a mysterious skin disease. While still trying to cope with the tragedy, she was accused by her brother-in-law of having killed her firstborn through witchcraft.

“It was completely illogical but suddenly the entire village started accusing me. No one tried to defend me except my husband, Shyantu,” she recounts. “But of course, nobody would listen to just one man.’’

To vindicate herself, Meena had to sell two cows, the only things she owned, in order to fund a trip to a local sanctuary for herself, and for four other villagers who had to witness the ritual ‘cleansing’ of her ‘bad soul’’.

Despite the apparent success of the trip, the accusations didn’t stop. A few days later, Meena’s house was attacked and destroyed by an angry mob. When her husband tried to protect her, he was beaten and ostracised as well. The couple were chased away from the village and forced to live on the outskirts.

Meena, her husband and their surviving 20-year-old son are now hosted by an old woman and live in her shed. They survive by gathering edible leaves from a nearby forest and selling them to a government-run collection centre, a difficult job that can earn them as little as a couple of dollars a week.

The couple can’t attend weddings, visit the village shrine, use the local pond for washing or buy goods from the small grocery stores. “We are not even allowed to go to the weekly village market,” she says. “Our son brings us some household products from town.”

She and her husband are still clueless as to why the village branded her a witch. “I guess it could have been to grab our house and land,’’ she shrugs.

Meena was fortunate that her 67-year-old husband stood by her side. Rather than deal with such accusations, many husbands choose to abandon their wives and start a new life with another woman. But Shyantu is not like most husbands. “When my brother told me to kick my wife out of the house, I replied that he could ask me for anything but this. I have known and loved her for so long, how could I do something like that?” he asks.

Financial motives and witch trials

Witchcraft accusations are often an excuse to usurp properties and take money from women. “In Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha and in Purulia in West Bengal, the struggle for tribal land is intense within the community. These are mineral-rich lands so mining companies are encroaching these places, leading to dearth of land,” explains Soma Chaudhuri, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology of Michigan State University and an expert on witch issues in India.

“Adivasi [tribal] women who inherit land from their fathers or husbands are often targeted. Envious family members start the accusations against the women to discredit them, leading to loss of inheritance.”

Witchcraft accusations often follow a clearly defined path. Once a woman is branded a witch, the case is discussed at a village meeting, where accusers submit their evidence to the village chief and the traditional doctor.

If the traditional doctor upholds the case (often by resorting to bizarre rituals like making a few rice grains float in a pan full of water and deciding the punishment depending on which direction they go), women have no chance of escaping their fate.

Some of the cases are horrifying. According to testimonies gathered by local activists, there have been cases of sons killing mothers in order to protect the rest of the family from the social stigma; husbands abandoning wives who later end up in the flesh trade and couples losing all their savings and having to live a hand-to-mouth existence. In a bid to tackle the problem, the Indian Union cabinet last year approved the Rajasthan Women (Prevention & Protection from Atrocities) Bill, which lays down stringent penalties for those who harass or assault women by branding them “witches”.

According to the Bill, whoever maligns or accuses a woman of practising witchcraft will be punished with a prison term of up to three years, along with a fine that can be as high as Rs5,000 (about Dh280). Punishment is infrequent though.

Ranjana Kumari, a well-known women’s rights activist and president of New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, an advocacy group that aims to highlight and bring justice to marginalised and underprivileged areas of society, says, “India has a patriarchal society and women here are tortured in the name of many myths and taboos.” Ignorance about mental disorders and physical ailments adds to the issue. “It is unfortunate that women who behave differently due to their mental health or hormonal changes are often taken as culprits of witchcraft and thus, face tremendous torture,” she adds.

Finding legal solutions and campaigning

According to GS Jaswal, a lawyer who helped draft the Prevention of Witch Practices Act
in Jharkhand, the solution to the problem lies in legalising and training the traditional doctors who are responsible for declaring someone
a witch. “Traditional doctors live off villagers’ handouts. If they fail to cure a disease, they need someone to pin the blame on. That’s where witch accusations start,” he explains.

Although there have been talks of passing federal anti-witchcraft legislation valid throughout India, that is yet to take shape, leaving the accused women in limbo. While some of them find the courage to denounce their aggressors, authorities are often influenced by the same traditional beliefs they are supposed to eradicate.

“According to the law there is no such thing as a witch, but I personally believe they do exist,” confesses 31-year-old Pobita Sardar, the elected village chief in charge of 13 villages, including Birbans in Jharkhand where several cases have been reported.

Sure that they will get no help from their fellow villagers, some women like Chhutni Mahato, 52, have decided to take matters into their own hands. The most famous ‘witch’ in the region, she was accused of practising witchcraft and was chased away from her village Saraikela in Jharkhand in 1994. She had to live under a tree for nine months, surviving on the charity and a few food leftovers from
her parents. Even now she is not sure why she was branded a witch. Some people in her neighbourhood had fallen ill and the local village elders began pointing fingers at Chhutni alleging she was responsible. Her toothless face bears testimony of the torture she underwent after the attack that followed. “While some beat me with sticks, one of them held my head and smashed it into the ground, knocking out my teeth,” she says.

After a long and tortuous ordeal, she finally resettled in Birbans, far away from Saraikela, together with her three children and husband, Dhananjay Mahato. He struggled for years to retain possession of their house and a small patch of land where they used to grow crops
but finally gave up, sold the property and moved away. “The village well was out of bounds and
I was not allowed to socialise with the villagers,” he says.

Since then, Chhutni has dedicated her life to assisting accused witches by mediating between families, informing police and lawyers every time a witch-hunt occurs and filing lawsuits on behalf of the victims.

Chhutni is an active member of an organisation called the Association for Social and Human Awareness – led by socialist Punam Toppo – which works for the rights of women who have been victims of witch-hunts. Chhutni’s activism was instrumental in shedding light on the phenomenon, and gained her the respect and admiration of many human-rights campaigners, both in India and overseas.

“Since 2000 I saved the lives of at least 38 women,” she says proudly. “I threw open the doors of my house to them so they have a roof and a safe and secure place to stay when they are thrown out of their villages,’’ she says.

Nilimoni, the woman who was almost killed after losing her husband to a mystery illness, is one of the women Chhutni helped. She says,
“I hope authorities get strict and pass laws to see that nobody is ever again branded a witch and attacked. I know what it feels to live constantly looking over your shoulder.’’