A former professor of St Xavier’s University, Kolkata, who was forced to leave her job after the parents of a student complained about some pictures on the professor’s private social media account, recently wrote about her ordeal in The Indian Express, describing her experience as a “witch trial”.
She wrote of the college administration’s meeting with her: “The meeting — about which nothing was told to me over the phone — turned out to be a modern re-enactment of a witch trial where I was interrogated and subsequently slutshamed over my private Instagram pictures.”
The term “witch trial” — or more commonly “witch hunt” — is used to describe situations where people are unfairly accused and judged, out of prejudice and without due process, in a hostile public setting. Former US President Donald Trump has used the term repeatedly over the years, most recently to label the investigations into his role in the January 6 US Capitol riots of 2021, and many leaders of the Congress party described the questioning of Sonia Gandhi by the Enforcement Directorate as a “witch hunt”. What are the origins of the centuries-old term, and why does it continue to resonate across geographies and cultures even today?
Who were the ‘witches’ in witch trials or witch hunts?
Many cultures have the concept of a “witch”, which describes people — often women — believed to have associations with black magic, rituals, and other malevolent practices. They have traditionally been viewed with dislike and suspicion, religious authorities have condemned and attacked them, and they have been seen in Christianity as worshippers of the devil.
During the Salem Witch Trials in the US, over 200 people were wrongly convicted of practising witchcraft, and 20 were executed between 1692 and 1693, in a small village in Massachusetts. Until a few centuries ago, Europe witnessed repeated instances of people being convicted in sham trials where they were accused of being witches, and forced to confess their supernatural powers.
The presence of witches was used to explain any strange or unfortunate incident, be it crop failure, disease due to the unusually cold winters that prevailed during a lot of these trials, deaths, or anything that disrupted life at the time.
While women were mostly condemned as witches, there were also cases of men being accused of witchcraft. Those accused, regardless of gender, were often people in a marginalised position in society — the poor, the old, the mentally unstable, those with unconventional lifestyles or residents of conventional settings.
How did the ‘trial’ typically proceed?
The way witch trials happened, lacking any principles or processes of justice and with a prejudiced and often bloodthirsty crowd watching the spectacle, is the reason why the expression continues to be used to describe situations of grave injustice and misuse of power by authorities or institutions. At the time these trials actually took place in Europe or America, authorities such as local governments, or religious authorities such as the Church, were not interested in a fair investigation, and often based their actions on rumours, gossip, or prejudice.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the official journal of the Smithsonian Museums in the US, trials involved intense questioning and often torture — a reason why many accused “admitted” to being witches. Often, investigations consisted of questioning young children who were supposedly affected by the witches’ powers, and what they said was not checked for accuracy.
At one point, a respected minister of the Church in Salem wrote to the court to not allow “spectral evidence” or testimony about dreams and visions. This advice was largely ignored, as strict punishment including hanging was pronounced by the local judges.
According to a paper published in The Economic Journal, authored by the American economist Peter T Leeson, “If a trial was conducted and, as was often the case, the accused convicted and sentenced to death, her execution took place in public, amplifying the audience for the witch-prosecutor’s confessional advertisement by rendering the witch’s death a public spectacle.”
When did witch hunting ultimately die out?
Generally, the growth of science, rationality, and stronger institutions in the West is believed to have caused a decline in witch-hunting. Beyond Europe and America, other regions of the world have also reported witch trials, though not on as big a scale or concentrated in a particular period of time. It was documented in colonial times in India, with the British Library’s documents revealing some women had chillies rubbed in their eyes to put an end to their “evil” glare, supposedly behind the death of cattle.
The belief in witches has been common in India too, and the victims have often been lower-caste or marginalised individuals. Obscurantism and the lack of education has had a direct relationship with the belief in witchcraft, and this has been used by motivated or unscrupulous actors with criminal intent. Laws banning witch-hunting are in place in several states including Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, and Jharkhand.
As per the Rajasthan law, “whoever forces a woman, branding her as witch, to drink or eat any inedible substance or any obnoxious substance or parade her naked or with scanty cloths or with painted face or body or commits any similar acts which is derogatory to human dignity or displaces her from her house or other property” faces three to seven years’ imprisonment.
But these laws have not always been successful in curbing attacks on women, many of whom are targeted as witches for going against the community or refusing the advances of men. Widows or elderly women are sometimes branded as “witches” to gain access to their land and assets.