Anaben Pawar, a 45-year-old tribal, whimpered in pain as she recounted the sequence of events of Friday night when she and four others — two men and two women — were beaten with burning logs of wood and made to walk on burning charcoal by an exorcist and villagers. For Anaben, who is now recuperating at her Kadmal village home in Gujarat’s Dang district after being discharged from the hospital, it was a night of horror. The torture led to the death of 50-year-old Paruben Pawar, and one of the men lost vision in one eye.
The provocation, she said, was the outbreak of a viral fever, which the villagers blamed on the theft of an idol from the village temple five years ago.
“It was late in the night on Friday. I was sleeping inside my house when a group of villagers came to my house and told me that I have been summoned for a ‘bhakti programme’ by a bhagat (an exorcist who is also called bhuva by tribals). I was accompanied by my husband (Manjirao Pawar). When we reached the spot, I saw exorcist Vanubhai Bhagat of neighbouring Ghana village. A wood fire was lit and rice was sprinkled as they began the ritual. Soon I was dragged to the spot and Bhagat started to beat me with a burning log. My husband tried to save me, but he was also beaten up by a group of villagers… They alleged that I had stolen the idol of goddess from the temple, five years ago, which resulted in the outbreak of fever in the village,” said Anaben, who has several internal injuries on her back.
The four others — Paruben, her husband Janabhai Pawar, Rajyubhia Bhisara and his wife Nachiben Bhisara — were also beaten up by the exorcist and the villagers. Like Anaben, the remaining four are tribals and work as farm labourers.
According to Anaben, the torture continued for over six hours.
“The exorcist and villagers forced us to confess that we were involved in stealing the idols from the temple. Finally, we were allowed to go to our homes with injuries, and were later taken to the hospital for treatment by our relatives,” she said, adding “this is first (exorcism) instance when a person has died due to torture”.
“If there is something wrong, tribals approach exorcists who carry out certain rituals in the presence of villagers and call out names of women who are suspected to be into witchcraft. This is for the first time that men were also summoned and tortured by the villagers and the exorcist,” she added.
Following the death of Paruben, her son Nanabhai Pawar had lodged a complaint with the police, naming some of the villagers. Police on Saturday arrested five accused — Vanu Pawar, Dinesh Budhekar, Suresh Bhoye, Chhagan Jhamar, Jayram Gavit. The exorcist, Vanubhai Bhagat, however, is absconding.
The tribal-dominated village, which is located in the dense forest of Mahal in Dangs, bordering Maharashtra, has a population of 2,000. Over 30 per cent tribals in the village are Christians. The village has two churches, and the
sarpanch of the village, Vanitaben Chaudhary, is also a Christian.
According to Vanitaben, she was not taken into confidence about the exorcism ritual.
“The physical harassment started in the night and continued till early in the morning. They had not taken permission of my wife who is sarpanch of the village,” said Vanitaben’s husband Gulabbhai Chaudhary. “Vanu Pawar and others wanted to become a hero and were threatening the poor tribals. I don’t know for what reason they were doing such activities,” he added. Nachiben
Nachiben Bhisara, whose husband Rayjubhai Bhisara (51) has lost vision in his left eye, said that they had become victim of “some conspiracy”.
“Vanu Pawar is a powerful man. There is some internal war going on between the sarpanch of our village, Vanu Pawar, Suresh Bhoye and Jayram Gavit. We are poor and therefore we cannot raise our head against the trio as they are highly influential people and financially strong,” she said.
Following the incident, a team led by Sub Divisional Magistrate B M Bhabhor reached the village on Sunday and began creating awareness against using black magic.
“We have planned to start awareness drive in the villages to educate people and explain them that exorcists are not a solution to every problem. We have identified some NGOs in Surat and Vadodara who perform activities like street plays to make people aware and eradicate the beliefs in exorcists. We will soon start such activities here,” Deputy Superintendent of Police (Dangs) B V Gohil said.
According to sarpanch’s husband, she too would be helping the district administration in such efforts. “The incident has shocked the entire taluka and people are scared. We have handed application to police urging them that such type of practices should be stopped in the entire district… Several villagers had now come up against such tradition and they told me that in future they will not participate in exorcism. Even people in the neighbouring villages have expressed sympathy towards the victims,” said Gulabbhai Chaudhary.