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India Struggles to Eradicate an Old Scourge: Witch Hunting

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

May 13, 2023

Once driven largely by superstition, the brutal practice is now often simply a tool to oppress women, in many cases violently.

By Suhasini Raj

Reporting from Tiruldih and Raidih in the state of Jharkhand in India

They ushered the young woman into their home and closed the door behind her. Then the beating began.

“You are a witch,” shouted one of the attackers, as she, her parents and her uncle rained punches, kicks and slaps on the 26-year-old woman’s stomach, chest and face.

When the pummeling finally ended, after nearly two hours, the young woman was pulled outside by her hair, dragged through her village and dumped, unconscious, next to a temple, her clothing barely clinging to her battered body.

The attack, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand in 2021, was evidence that India is still struggling to eradicate the age-old scourge of witch hunting, despite a raft of laws and other initiatives.

For centuries, the branding of witches was driven largely by superstition. A crop would fail, a well would run dry or a family member would fall ill, and villagers would find someone — almost always a woman — to blame for a misfortune whose cause they did not understand.

Superstition hasn’t gone away. But witchcraft accusations are now often simply a tool to oppress women, victims’ advocates say. The motives can be to grab land, to ostracize a woman to settle a score, or to justify violence.

In the Jharkhand case, the young woman who was attacked, Durga Mahato, said the trouble started when she refused the sexual advances of a prominent man in the village. He, his brother, his wife and their daughter then declared Ms. Mahato a witch before luring her to their home and attacking her.

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