When you think about witch-hunting, the one incident that comes to mind first is the infamous witch hunt case of Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th Century of Colonial America. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 executions were carried out during this time through male lawyers as a means of social control.
Witch-hunting was widely practised in various parts of the world, especially in Europe and North America during the Early Modern period (1480 – 1750). As mentioned in The Guardian, a witch hunt was “the search for those people – usually solitary women – suspected of witchcraft, guided by panic, misinformation, and misunderstanding.” Without pretence to a fair hearing, “communities would execute their suspects” on the thinnest proof.”
Sadly, witch-hunting is still practised in rural parts of India. Several women are subjected to violence, torture and accused to be witches to avenge personal grudges or gain unique benefits every day.
How do things look today?
Misogyny still thrives, just a little differently. Social media witch hunts and media trials are no different, except that the torture is from behind a screen. For example, take the recent case of Rhea Chakraborty, who was accused, witch-hunted, and trialled by the media for the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
A recently published study by the thinktank Demos had a shocking revelation. It mentioned that in one three-week period in the word, 6,500 unique women Twitter users were addressed as “slut” and “whore” in 10,000 tweets. Cyberbullying and media trials are the new forms of witch-hunting in the digital era.
There are survivors from rural India who live to tell their tales. One such story is of three women living in the western state of Gujarat. These women found male relatives defecating in their crops. They raised their voice against it, which is against the patriarchal culture they follow and when these men died (of various reasons), the women were accused of “eating their soul.” The women were forced to give away their lands to stay alive. The story of Kesi is also somewhat similar. Her villagers labelled her as a witch. She was beaten, stripped naked, and was made to parade through the neighbouring villages on a donkey. And these are not just stories of a handful of women.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, between 2006 and 2016, more than 2500 people were killed and tortured in the name of a witch hunt, most of them being women. However, the numbers could be much higher as many states “don’t list witchcraft as a motive of the murder.”
Witch-hunting and laws
Many countries have passed laws to stop witchcraft and witch-hunting. The Great Britain condemned witchcraft as a punishable act by law with its Witchcraft Act of 1735. Germany too has a similar law passed in the late 18th century where sorcery remains a punishable act by law. In India, also, there had been several laws to ban witch-hunting.
For example, Rajasthan passed a law against witch-hunting in 2015. The Assam Witch Hunting Bill mandates a jail term for branding a person as a witch, which can be extended as life imprisonment if the person is forced to commit suicide while being labelled a witch.
Are the laws enough?
Sadly, even with so many laws in place, activists are not too hopeful and think just having laws in place is not adequate to stop this heinous crime. Most experts say that although the rules have lowered the rate, it is a deep-rooted cultural practice. Moreover, illiteracy and religious blindness make it furthermore challenging to eradicate the act entirely from society. We need a holistic approach to educate them and make them aware of the current laws and the consequences of their actions. Only then we would be successful in removing the evils of witch-crafting from our society.
(Edited by Neha Baid)