Two cases of witch hunting within a week — the torture and subsequent death of 40-year-old Kanya Devi in Ajmer, and the confinement of an 80-year-old woman for 18 days after being branded a witch — have brought into focus the medieval practice of witch hunting that continues in Rajasthan despite a dedicated Act prohibiting it.
Rajasthan enacted the Rajasthan Prevention of Witch Hunting Act in 2015, becoming the fifth state after Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha to legislate on the matter. Between April 2015, when the Act came into effect, and September 2016, 50 cases have been reported to the police from 12 districts, but there has not been a single conviction yet.
The Act provides for imprisonment for one to five years and a fine of Rs 50,000 to anyone who “commits witch hunting”. The punishment is higher — three to seven years imprisonment — for “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…” In case of unnatural death of a woman subjected to witch hunting, the Act makes the offence punishable for a minimum of seven years and a maximum of life imprisonment, and/or a fine of Rs 1 lakh. Besides, it has punitive provisions for witch doctors (locally called bhopa) and anyone who practices witch craft.
The Act empowers the government to impose a collective fine on inhabitants of a given area for abetting or participating in witch hunting or sheltering the perpetrators. The fine thus collected is to be used for compensating and rehabilitating the victim. Despite, such stringent provisions, the Act has failed to curb the menace.
While cases have been reported from as far as Barmer in western Rajasthan, the problem is chiefly concentrated in the state’s southern, tribal-dominated region. The southern districts account for 39 of the 50 cases, with Bhilwara leading with 18, followed by Dungarpur (10) and Udaipur (6). These are also the districts with some of the lowest literacy rates in Rajasthan; all under the state average of 66.1 %.
Bhilwara SP Pradeep Mohan admits that the Act is not proving to be a strong enough deterrent. “It’s a social problem in this region. One can’t fault the implementation of the law for this. Till there is enough education and understanding about this issue, the law will not be a deterrent,” he told The Indian Express.
Social activists too feel that limited awareness of the Act is the biggest hurdle in preventing witch hunting. “Just because it’s a social problem doesn’t mean the Act can’t deter it. In that case, murder, rape, dowry etc are all social problems. The Act is strong enough but its implementation is very weak,” says Tara Ahluwalia, an activist based in Bhilwara who works with victims of witch hunting.
“The problem is that there is no awareness among people. The administration and police are responsible for ensuring awareness. Also, the implementation is sloppy because investigating agencies don’t take such cases seriously. That is why there has been no conviction under this Act yet even though there have been so many cases,” she says.