SILENCE HANGS over Nagar Siskari Tola in Jharkhand’s Gumla district, with most houses locked and lanes empty but for policemen, five days after four people were lynched on the charge of practising witchcraft here. “Koi baat nahin karega (Nobody will talk),” a policeman tells you, keeping guard at the local akhara (meeting point), where the four were dragged to and killed in the wee hours of July 20.
All four were known to be “ojhas” or healers, villagers believing they could cure small ailments through their supernatural powers.
Many in Nagar Siskari would turn to them, with the nearest health sub-centre 5 km away. Mukhiya Ravi Oraon says even at that sub-centre, a doctor is rare. “If there is no doctor, what does one do? The village has to rely on quacks and ojhas. If the ailing person improves, they feel obliged to the ojhas. But if the patient deteriorates, conspiracy theories abound.” He adds that his complaints to the Block Development Officer regarding the health centre had gone unheard.
The Sunday Express visited the sub-centre at 4 pm on a weekday, and it was locked because of it being the village market day. Jitendra Munda, who works at a medical store in Sisai, some 15 km away, sat outside distributing medicines. “There are no doctors here and I realised people needed help. So I give them medicines for a minimum consultancy charge of Rs 10,” says Munda, admitting that he didn’t have any degree.
Locals say even the auxiliary nurse mid-wife is available only for three hours a day, 10 am to 1 pm.
Gumla Deputy Commissioner Shashi Ranjan, however, says it is wrong to connect the lynchings with the lack of healthcare facilities. The Sisai Community Health Centre, he asserts, is “the best of the best”. “This case is a result of pure superstition.”
The Sisai block under which Siskari Tola falls has a population of around 3,000, most of them farmers. However, water is scarce, says Oraon. The only source of drinking water is a well, and fetching it can be a hour’s walk. Few are attracted towards MNREGA jobs, he adds, as payments come late. But there are not many other jobs forthcoming, as few have studied beyond Class 10.
About the killing of Suna Oraon, 65, Champa Oraon, 79, Fagni Oraine, 60 and Piro Oraine, 74, the mukhiya admits there was no shock as there had been a “similar killing” four years back. This time, he says, the killings were triggered by a couple of deaths that had occurred. “An ojha from a far-off place said somebody was practising witchraft. So the villagers decided to take matters in their own hands.”
Villagers, who claim they saw nothing, similarly dismiss the killings as “routine”. “Jharkhand mein dayan hota hai aur bahut log ka tabiyat kharab hua hai (Jharkhand has witches and many people have fallen ill due to them),” says one.
Between January 2017 and July 2019, 88 people have been lynched on suspicion of witchcraft in the state, according to data compiled by the Jharkhand Police. Police have arrested eight people of Siskari Tola in this case, as well as Suhila Nayak, also an ojha, from another village.
Of those lynched, Champa and Piro sold vegetables at the weekly market. A 70-year-old relative says she isn’t sure if the two practised witchcraft, adding “ab log bol rahe hain to karte honge (if the people are saying, they must have been)”.
Heera Oraon, the daughter of Suna Oraon, says he had been treating people for 17 years. “Many people would come to him, from far-off places too. He used to help everyone.” Now, Heera is planning to take away her siblings from the Tola. “There is so much superstition.”