Betwa Sharma for The New York Times
Women discussing their problems in a forum organized by Seva Mandir, a nongovernmental organization, outside Udaipur city in Rajasthan, March 20, 2012.
Shanta Devi was branded a witch nearly a decade ago, after her family was plagued by long bouts of fever and breathing problems. Villagers still cover their faces while crossing the 65-year-old woman, who lives in a tribal belt about 60 miles outside Udaipur city in the desert state of Rajasthan. Last year, the branded woman’s relatives were advised by a witch doctor to make her drink goat’s blood as a cure. But she refused, even as neighbors wielded sticks in her backyard to pressure her into doing so.
Betwa Sharma for The New York Times
Shanti Devi, 65, was branded a witch and was asked to drink goat’s blood by a witch doctor.
For generations, women have been frequently branded as witches in villages spread across the dusty Aravalli hills and elsewhere in rural parts of India, blamed for unexplained or incurable illnesses among villagers and livestock. The lack of medical facilities near remote villages allows these superstitious beliefs to prevail.
In recent years, activists have pushed for better medical facilities and sanitary conditions in tribal villages. Still, most people cannot afford the jeep fare to the nearest hospitals, which are at least an hour away. So they turn to a witch doctor, called a bhopa, who plays the dual role of doctor and priest. The bhopa, who claims to have magical powers as well, prescribes remedies like burying a live chicken, burning hands with coal as well as identifying and punishing witches.
Old and young widows are easy targets. The mixing of old superstitions with modern material desires has proved deadly for these women, as many brandings are now done to disinherit them from family property. Dakat Kunwar, 25, was declared a witch and thrown out of the house after her husband died. Ms. Kunwar, a manual laborer, now lives in a small room with her three children. “I can’t get remarried and I can’t feed my children,” she said.
Lawmakers in Rajasthan have failed to criminalize witch-branding, but the practice is common even in states like Jharkhand that have made it illegal. Activists say a combination of severe punishment, a sensitized police force, easily accessible medical facilities and education can combat the deep-rooted persecution. Branded women, called dakans, rarely defy their tormentors, but Mrs. Shanta’s resistance was supported by a fellow villager, Lakshmi Khadadi, who has intervened on behalf of nine women. Mrs. Khadadi, 23, involves other bold women in the community to try to defuse a volatile situation by talking to the feuding parties or advising them to seek medical help. “There is safety in numbers so women should help women,” she said. “We have to show there is no connection between magic and illness.”
They also pleaded with the village council last year to take Mrs. Shanta’s side. The council sent emissaries to meet the bhopa who had advised drinking goat blood. “We found no logic to his counsel,” said Shankar Lal Meena, the village chief. The bhopa, villagers said, sometimes made people put their hands into a snake pit as a test — getting bitten is seen as proof of guilt. Lakshmi Jain, a social worker with Seva Mandir, a local nongovernmental organization, said that perpetrators of witch-branding often have wide support. She recalled an incident in the late 1980s of two men slicing off the head of a branded woman with swords in broad daylight. Onlookers, including women, believed their village had been saved. “I was shocked, but it made me realize that only creating awareness will produce lasting change,” she said.
Belief in black magic is entrenched in the countryside. Haresh Singh, a middle-aged villager, said he believes that his mother is possessed by a witch who causes her shaking fits. “Who are you to question when you didn’t see what I saw?” he said, getting annoyed it was suggested that it could be a medical problem. “Even doctors fail to help us.”
The case of his mother, Geeta Kunwar, is infamous in these parts. A bhopa once advised her family that burning Mrs. Geeta was the only way to get rid of the evil spirit inside her, so many years ago she was made to hold burning embers. Seva Mandir recently organized a meeting with bhopas. “None of them returned a second time, because to stop giving wrong advice means less income,” said Ms. Jain. Babuji Lal, a bhopa, receives many requests to dispel witches from possessed relatives. He can be seen beating people with bushes of the sacred neem plant to cleanse them. Mr. Lal, however, insists that he no longer blames illnesses on witches. “It is angry goddesses who punish the villagers for doing animal sacrifices,” he said. “But villagers still want remedies to expel witches.”
The education of young people is seen as key to eradicating such superstitions. Better roads are making it possible to cover the long distances for attending college in the city. Even a secondary school education could help change rural mindsets. Mrs. Khadadi, during her childhood, saw many women being branded as witches. But going to school until the 10th grade, she says, made her question and eventually reject the practice.
Her husband, who never received an education, supports her activism by doing home chores and taking care of the children. “He worries sometimes because village disputes can be dangerous,” she said. Ms. Jain said that her organization has focused on working with progressive village women who can fight witch-branding from inside the community. “We are seeing results,” she said. “Women are still branded, but we hear of far less cases of heinous crimes like burnings, tonsuring hair and killings.”
There are also more instances of women standing up to their tormentors. A 65-year-old widow, also named Shanta Devi, is known for fighting back against a wealthy merchant family who believed she was casting spells to prevent them from siring male heirs. One late afternoon, four men came into her house and beat her mercilessly. “They hit me with sticks and kicked until I fainted,” she said. “They only had girls so thought I was killing the boys.”
After being released from two weeks in the hospital, Ms. Devi decided to challenge her persecutors in a local women’s forum. Such meetings are organized by Seva Mandir to discuss various issues like the length of the veils covering women’s faces and employment opportunities. Ms. Shanta Devi wanted reimbursement for the medical treatment that cost 10,000 rupees ($200) and a public retraction. Forced to appear at the women’s forum by activists, the men eventually promised not to harass her but never covered the hospital bill. For Ms. Devi, the apology has more value since it might prevent other villagers from using her as a scapegoat in any future troubles. “I want to live without fear,” she said.