Rahibai’s deposition led to life term being awarded to 11 people for killing two after branding them witches — the first case to receive the maximum punishment under a Maharashtra law. Her story of what happened that October night in 2014.
“Are they giving me money so that they can let off my mother’s killers? If that is so, the government can keep its money,” says Rahibai Hiraman Pingale, 40, standing outside her mud-and-brick hut in Poshere village in Mokhada, a tribal taluka 157 km north of Mumbai.
On an October night in 2014, Rahibai had witnessed her 65-year-old mother Budhibai Dore and an aunt, Kashibai Veer, 85, being branded witches and trampled to death, while she herself was stripped naked and beaten. Last week, a Nashik court convicted 11 people, including her two brothers, of murder and granted Rahibai, the main prosecution eyewitness, a compensation of Rs 1 lakh.
Sentencing the 11 to life imprisonment, the court also held them guilty of violating The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. Over 400 cases have been filed under the Act since it came into effect, but there have only been half a dozen convictions so far. This is the first instance where the maximum penal provision under the law — life imposed — has been imposed.
“Had Rahibai not dared to file a complaint and testified, it would have been difficult for us to act against the accused,” says Chaggan Deoraj, the investigating officer in the case who retired as Additional SP, Nashik, in 2016. Rahibai says it all began when one of her sisters-in-law accused her mother of being a witch.
Rahibai, the second of six children of Punaji and Budhibai Dore, lived with her husband and two children at Dandwal village in Palghar district, close to where her younger brother Kashinath and his family lived. She claims that a few days after Diwali, Kashinath turned up at their house and said they need to visit their ‘ailing’ mother, who lived with their youngest brother Shani Dore at Dhamanshit village, 30 km away.
On reaching there, Rahibai says, she was surprised to find their mother in good health. While at their mother’s home, says Rahibai, another of their brothers, Govind, who lived in Nashik district and who too had been visiting their mother, walked up covered in mud. His wife Shevanti, who was sweeping the house, suddenly started behaving as if she was possessed, she says. “She pulled my mother’s hair and called her a witch. We all got worried and my mother suggested that we go to a witch doctor,” Rahibai says.
A few hours later, Rahibai and other family members — mother Budhibai, brothers Govind and Kashinath and sister Kashibai Burbude — walked 30 km to Take Harsha village, to the house of Bachibai Narayan Khadake, 42, a bhagatin or witch doctor known to the family. Rahibai says there were several people, including 35-year-old Bugibai Mahadu Veer, who was apprenticing to become a faith healer, at Khadake’s home.
“After my brothers narrated the incidents of the day, Bugibai began acting possessed. She said my mother was a witch and could be cured only through a beating. She then asked us to take part in the beating,” Rahibai says. According to police records, as soon as the beating began, Rahibai’s sister Kashibai, who had accompanied them, fled the spot. Rahibai says her mother was stripped naked and beaten up.
“They made her lie on the floor and asked people to walk on her body. Then, they would turn her on her back and walk over her again. Everyone was asked to hit her at least seven times with a stick. My mother cried out in pain, admitting she was a witch. She probably did that to save herself,” Rahibai says. Rahibai says that once her mother fell unconscious, they moved her to a shed at the back of the house.
The two faith healers then decided that Rahibai’s aunt, 85-year-old Kashibai, was also a witch and needed to be cured. So the next day, the old woman was brought from her house in Dhavalpada to Take Harsha, allegedly on the pretext that she would be given work on the field. “But as soon as she reached Bachibai’s house, they stripped her and started assaulting her,” says Rahibai.
Rahibai claims her brothers were initially not keen on beating up their mother and aunt but were forced by the two faith healers to do so “if they wanted to be happy in their lives”. “They cried a lot, but were threatened that they would have to land at least seven blows to ensure that their troubles went away,” says Rahibai.
Once the old woman too passed out, the two faith healers allegedly claimed that Rahibai was also a witch and started beating her. Once Rahibai fell unconscious, she too was moved to the shed where the bodies of the two older women were kept. Rahibai claims that she woke up at 2 am and saw the lifeless bodies of her mother and aunt. Fearing for her life, Rahibai says she decided to flee.
While she does not recollect how long she walked, locals claim that it takes close to six hours to cover the 30 km to Dandwal. Rahibai’s journey after her escape had been contentious, with defence lawyers questioning how a woman who had been so severely assaulted could undertake a journey through such a difficult, hilly terrain. On reaching home, Rahibai says, she told her daughter and husband about the assault but did not tell them about the murders.
“I did not file a police complaint because everybody says the police take money to file complaints. I told this to the court as well. I was also scared of Bachibai and Bugibai (the witch doctors) because they told me that a curse would befall my family if I complained about the incident,” Rahibai says. While there were whispers in the adjoining villages about the murders, no complaint was filed for close to two months until Bhagwan Madhe, an activist associated with Shramjeevi Sanghatna, an organisation that works for tribals, got to know of the incident.
“Kamal Bhasme, an activist and Rahibai’s neighbour, told me about the murders. When I asked Rahibai, she was evasive at first but soon broke down. It took me six hours to convince her to file the complaint,” said Madhe.
He then took Rahibai to Ghoti police station, nearly 50 km from Poshere, to file the complaint. The bodies of her mother and aunt were exhumed and the postmortem revealed ‘trauma’ on their chests and backs. The case went to court in April 2015 and after 22 witnesses, including Rahibai, deposed, a guilty verdict was announced.
The accused, however, stuck to their stand that the two victims had died an accidental death. “The two women must have been run over by a vehicle. The only mistake that Bachibai’s family did was to bury the body instead of cremating it,” says Mahadu Nirgude, a relative of the Nirgude family to which five of the accused belong.
Villagers claim that the victims were related to the accused and that both believed in witchcraft. Rahibai too acknowledges that the family has gone to witchdoctors in the past. “Yes, we tribals believe in witches and that they can bring bad luck to people. But Bachibai and the others could have done what they did without killing my mother and aunt. Anyway, after all that has happened, I don’t believe in these bhagatins anymore. People should go to doctors instead,” she says.
Rahibai says she didn’t flinch while testifying against her brothers. “They killed our mother and assaulted their own sister. There was a two-month gap between the incident and the complaint I filed. Not once did they come to me or show remorse. They deserve what they got,” says Rahibai.
But the fight has made her tougher. “My eldest daughter Indira was in Class 5 when the murders happened and she stopped going to school. I now want her to start studying again,” she says.