Chhattisgarh has among the worst figures of witchcraft violence in the country, almost all against vulnerable women. Over 90 per cent victims of the around 1,500 police cases reported in the state in the last 14 years have been either widows, or women separated from husbands, or women with no children. Around 250 of them, says Dr Dinesh Mishra, president of the Andhshraddha Unmulan Samiti, have been killed.
It has been 20 years now that the Raipur-based Mishra has been working for women such as them through his organisation, which fights superstition in the tribal and rural belts of the state. For his efforts, apart from the state government’s ‘Chhattisgarh Alankaran’, he has been honoured by the Centre for “spreading scientific temper in the country”.
Mishra says that when he began medical practice in the early 1990s, he was surprised at the number of people visiting ojhas and tantriks for treatment. “Women were routinely termed tonhi (witches) and humiliated publicly.”
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The victims were forced to eat excreta and consume urine. They were stripped, paraded through streets with heads tonsured. Sometimes they were ostracised or boycotted.
Mishra realised that he needed to go beyond clinical work if he wanted to improve rural health, and fight such dogmas. In 1995, he with a few others founded the Samiti, and made witch-hunting the focus of its efforts. “We visited villages, held camps,” he says. He has conducted workshops on the issue for various Central ministries, and held special sessions for women in jails. He and volunteers also hold dharnas against jyotishis and babas who claim to cure people through any form of mystical treatment.
It was largely thanks to his efforts that the Chhattisgarh government enacted the Tonhi Pratadna Nivaran Adhiniyam in 2005. Under the law, terming a person “tonhi (witch)” invites three-year rigorous imprisonment, while torturing her physically or mentally can lead to five-year RI.
Mishra’s work is self-funded as he has refused support from even the Women and Child Development Department. “It helps us remain independent,” he says.
A major challenge, Mishra says, continues to be rehabilitation of victims and their families, who bear the stigma even after the violence. He has been able to help some of the victims get anganwadi-like jobs.
Besides, Mishra says, there are few convictions as not many eyewitness villagers come forward.
Like other rationalists, he also faces threats, mostly in the form of anonymous text messages or phone calls. However, Mishra adds, these have fallen over the years. “Some risks have to be taken if we want to do this work… People now respect us.”
Then there are other rewards. On January 26 this year, he notes proudly, his organisation felicitated Tirith Bai, Shyama Bai and Bisahin Bai for their efforts against superstition. Branded witches in 2001, the three women of Lachkera village in Gariyaband have received court relief against the abuse and humiliation meted out to them.
She was born to an illiterate couple in one of the most backward districts of Assam, studied only up to Class V, and was married off at the age 15. About three decades ago, this mother of four was almost killed for taking on a village quack who said her teenager son was ill as he had had physical relations with a ‘pari (angel)’. Now Birubala Rabha, 62, finds herself at the head of a campaign to wean people away from supersititions, quacks and kangaroo courts. In August 2015, Assam passed the Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2015, largely due to her efforts.
Birubala figured among 1,000 women collectively nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by a Switzerland-based organisation in 2005. Following that, she set up her own organisation, called Mission Birubala. “I know what it feels like once you are declared a witch. I have seen death from close quarters,” she says.