March 22, 2004

Witch-hunts

Britain passed a Witchcraft Act in 1735. The last person to be tried under it was Helen Duncan, a Spiritualist from Edinburgh, Scotland who claimed to be able to summon the dead. Despite her frequently challenged authenticity, she was tried for witchcraft and although she wasn't burnt at the stake, she was sentenced to nine months in prison. Initially, she was charged with vagrancy, and then with conspiracy and the charge was finally changed to witchcraft and she was accused of the exercise or use human conjuration that through the agency of Helen Duncan spirits of deceased dead persons should appear to be present.

The year was 1944 and Britain was in the throes of World War II. Churchill, who was the Prime Minister at the time was furious as he wrote: "Give me a report of the 1735 Witchcraft Act. What was the cost of a trial in which the recorder [junior magistrate] was kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery?" in a memo. Over half a century has passed since then, and Britain hasn't had any more witch trials but witch-hunting is still prevalent in various other parts of the world including some Indian states such as Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Between 1991 and 2000, over 522 cases of witch-hunting were registered in Bihar alone. Perhaps it's time to re-open witch trials -- only this time round, with those who hunt 'witches' being the ones to be prosecuted to the fullest extent which the law permits.




Just last month, for example, 60 year old Chokli Ratansinh Kanasia of Jambusar village under Devagadh Baria taluka had to flee to Vadodara after relatives branded her a witch and alleged that her black magic made people sick and killed cattle. The reason: she has a discoloured eye. In fact if one goes through local newspapers -- and often national ones -- mired in superstition and medieval beliefs, it isn't difficult to come across cases (especially in rural India) of women and their families being hurt and harassed and even murdered because of being believed to be witches.

What's even more frightening though is that nowadays, being branded a witch is often just a device for people to settle disputes ranging from property arguments to ensuring that women do not stand up for their political and other rights. Recalling individual stories seems pointless: there are so many of them and all of them are so similar in their burden that they often sound the same. Persecution and torture; sometimes it's due to Shamans who encourage such acts and due genuine ignorance and superstition while at other times, it's due to the need for a covert and 'socially acceptable' means of keeping women from asserting their rights.

Witches and witch-hunts are not a tribal phenomenon although there are many who would like to believe that they are just as it's convenient to believe that crimes against women take place primarily among the poor and the uneducated. The persecution of so-called witches ranks among the most ignored crimes against women in Indian society today but many social activists say that legislation alone is unlikely to do much to help solve the problem unless there is a change in the attitudes of the people. Looking at how (un)successful the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act has been, that's probably true. And until attitudes do change, India will continue to have the dubious distinction of being a Nuclear Power engulfed in a Black Magic frenzy.


References:
  1. In the name of the witch : frontlineonnet.com/fl1723/17230870.htm
  2. Stop the witch-hunt : infochangeindia.org/WomenIstory.jsp?recordno=74&section_idv=1
  3. Woman branded witch for discoloured eye : timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/425550.cms

Also, take a look at Accused of Being a Witch!

It is the Year of Our Lord 1628. We are in the prince-bishopric of Bergstein, where reigns his grace, Count and Bishop Clement Augustus von und zu Hohensitz. You are Poldi Breschfeld, a simple peasant who is accused of being a witch.
More: www.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/hunt/index.html