I’ve written quite a bit about witch hunts in Africa, where they are common. My friend Leo Igwe has worked strongly against the practice, at great risk to himself. But it looks like much the same thing is going on in India as well, with thousands of victims.
The attack on the trio, in Gujarat in 2014, was one of thousands of witch hunts that take place in India. More than 2,500 Indians have been chased, tortured and killed in such hunts between 2000 and 2016, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Activists and journalists say the number is much higher, because most states don’t list witchcraft as a motive of murder. Witch hunts primarily target women and exploit India’s caste system and culture of patriarchy. Men who brand women as dakan capitalize on deeply rooted superstitions and systems built on misogyny and patriarchy to lay blame on females. The accusations of sorcery are used to oust women from valuable land that men covet, in a region where flawed development plans have produced agricultural failures, say sociologists who study violence in India. Witches are also convenient explanations for rising infant mortality rates and deaths from malaria, typhoid and cholera.
A few states have adopted anti–witch hunting laws, but Gujarat is not one of them. Women there are using their own resources to fighti back. At ANANDI, a Gujarati nonprofit that supports vulnerable communities, women sit in a circle on the floor and share samosas and stories. “We protect each other. It’s how we find strength,” one of them says. The women are learning the law, demanding a desk in the local police station so they can advocate for women who walk in to report violence, and they are pushing for witch hunting to be outlawed.
Battles over land and property are common starts to witch hunts, says Soma Chaudhuri, a sociologist at Michigan State University who studies gender violence in India. Chaudhuri says witch hunts and beatings provide an outlet for men living in poverty to vent frustrations over their own lack of power. “These rural communities are so marginalized and so oppressed, and they have no political resources and no avenues of protest. So what do people do when they’re very frustrated? You look to your surroundings for an easy scapegoat. Women are that scapegoat.” Long-standing cultural traditions of patriarchy, where men are supposed to control family resources, make women who may have inherited their own land easy targets, Chaudhuri says. With those patriarchal values comes misogyny and denigration of women, she adds.
I’m hoping we can book Prof. Shaudhuri to speak to CFI Michigan. We had Leo speak four years ago about witch hunts in Africa, and since then we’ve had three different groups of the Humanist Service Corps go to Ghana to work in the witch camps to aid the victims of this barbaric practice. This is why I cringe when people like Donald Trump claim to be the target of a “witch hunt” when they’re being held accountable for their actions. There are still real witch hunts going on around the world and the victims are not rich white men with political power, they are poor women whose lives are destroyed. Some are raped, killed, even set on fire. To compare your political investigations to that is vile and disgusting.