Jharkhand legislators suggest tackling witchcraft menace on war footing

As Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das expressed his resolve to root out witchcraft from the state, legislators cutting across party lines have backed the idea and suggested ways to uproot the medieval belief that claims innocent lives.

Ranchi: As Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das expressed his resolve to root out witchcraft from the state, legislators cutting across party lines have backed the idea and suggested ways to uproot the medieval belief that claims innocent lives.

Suggestions ranging from taking up the issue on a war footing to launching a widespread awareness campaign against the menace, which leaves survivors shocked and bewildered, have come up from law-makers.

"An active (district-level) administration can address it through extensive awareness campaigns," Parliamentary Affairs Minister Saryu Roy told PTI.

"Sometimes personal rivalry and quarrels lead to branding their rivals (as 'witch') as a design to settle personal scores. Action should be taken immediately by the district administration in such cases," Roy said.

Echoing Roy's views, former minister and JMM MLA Nalin Soren said personal enmity was one of the reasons behind this atrocious belief though the superstition was high in tribal societies.

"The people should be made aware that witchcraft is a superstition that profits none. One should not believe Ojhas (witch doctors), who are illiterates," Soren said.

Ever since the August 7 incident claimed lives of five women in Ranchi district, the chief minister at different forums has been flagging the issue, saying a collective effort was needed to remove the scourge of superstitions.

Another former minister and BJP MLA Radhakrishna Kishore said that launching of awareness campaign in a big way was the first step in removing the scourge, besides making efforts to take people above the poverty line so that they could send their children to schools.

"In my constituency, children, who ought to be in schools, take cattle (of others) for grazing as they get two kg rice from the cattle owners, which supplements their impoverished families," Kishore said.

He cited an example how a person recently took a patient to an Ojha (witch doctor) for treatment despite Kishore's advice to admit the patient to a hospital.

Kishore narrated another recent incident in which an 'Ojha' had set up a camp near a river "to get rid of ghosts from some women" who were made to bathe in the river by the 'Ojha' in cold weather.

"Such is the belief in the superstition...I had a question during the Monsoon session on steps being taken to root out the superstition," Kishore said and rued the query did not come as opposition protests marred question hours.

Suggesting that a firm decision be taken to eradicate the medieval belief persisting even in the 21st century, former Speaker and Congress MLA Alamgir Alam said the state should act against "witchcraft" as keenly as it acted upon banning "MSG-2-The Messenger of God" because it hurt the feelings of tribals.

"Also, trials of such cases should be speeded up and make the existing act more stringent. The victims or their family members should inform the nearest police station if they apprehend any sinister design planned against them in the name of witchcraft," Alamgir said.

He said education, healthcare centres and awareness campaigns were some of the ways to eliminate ignorance, illiteracy, poverty and disease, which lead to such beliefs.

Congress MLA Irfan Ansari linked the superstition to poverty and opined that only when poverty was eradicated, 'witchcraft' could be removed from the minds.

Working for the last 20 years as Chairman of Free Legal Aid Committee, an NGO, Premchand said political will was necessary to root out the social evil.

"The mind has been conditioned in the superstitious belief in many rural areas of Jharkhand. Like the evil practice of sati was rooted out, witchcraft too can be removed by making it a mission, and Ojhas should be included in the mission as they who brand innocent women as witches," Premchand said.

Referring to the August 7 lynching of five women in Ranchi district, he said during the past several other victims had been humiliated through tonsure, forced consumption of excreta and made them walk naked in the villages.

"This is not only inhuman but also violation of human rights. The surviving victims go into depression," he said.

Premchand quoted a survey finding that superstitious belief was imposed on innocent women by some evil persons with a motive to beat women into silence if they demand their legitimate rights.

He suggested extensive training to tribals in their own dialects, street plays and the proposed "Smart Village" programme to help eradicate it.

BJP leader Prem Kataruka said 'Smart Village' plan could help access to clean water and nutrition as lack of these basic amenities in rural areas caused stomach and other ailments and patients go to "Ojhas" instead of doctors.

PCC General Secretary Alok Dubey said, "Somewhere political will lacks in Jharkhand to fight this 'ku-pratha' (evil belief). Literacy and women empowerment can reduce this superstition."

Forty-three-year-old Chhotni, who survived an attack by some villagers in 1995 in West Singhbhum district, said, "They branded me daayan after a girl fell ill. I managed to flee the village and stayed under a tree for about ten days with my two kids. Now I am staying in Sareikela-Kharsawan district and helping NGOs fight the social evil."  

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