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Jamshedpur: Activists in Jharkhand have demanded the implementation of a central law of holding ‘ojhas’ (witch-doctors) and tribal chieftains accountable, to stop the practice of witch-hunting in the state.
“Around 40-50 people, mostly women, are tortured and killed every year in Jharkhand in the name of witch-hunting,” Premji, chairman of non-governmental organisation Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC) said.
As per National Crime Records Bureau data of 2019, Jharkhand ranked third in the country in witch-hunting cases, and 15 people were killed that year.
The latest deaths were recorded in Loto village in Gumla district in September this year when three members of a family were hacked to death for allegedly practicing black magic.
“A central law has to be implemented to curb such practices. However, the administration also needs to create awareness at the grassroots level. The issue has to be included in syllabi, programmes need to be aired on television, and anganwadi workers need to be trained to create awareness among the masses,” Premji said.
“Witch-hunting cases are far under-reported,” the chairman of the NGO that had pressurised the state government to formulate a law against the practice said.
“Political parties must focus on the issue, that affects over 17 states, in their election manifesto, and put forward solutions to the menace,” he said.
The NGO office-bearer said that ‘ojhas’ play a key role in identifying who is a “witch” and tribals have faith in them.
“Alternative employment opportunities must be created for ojhas such as the development of herbal parks where they can practice herbal medicine. These witch-doctors, who enjoy the patronage of local politicians and leaders of the traditional tribal self-rule system, must be held accountable for such incidents,” he said.
Echoing Premji, former MP and Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan (ASA) President Salkhan Murmu said that witch-hunting cases can be curbed only if ‘majhi-pargana’ (tribal chieftains) and ‘ojhas’ are held accountable for such incidents.
“We can contain the problem to some extent by enforcing a central legislation, but the sole responsibility of eradicating such evil practices lies with the tribals,” he said.
He alleged that chieftains of the self-rule system are often found responsible for identifying innocent people as “witches”, and personal enmity with the victims or intention to grab their land also plays a part in the branding.
Murmu suggested the imposition of collective penalty on villages and the curbing of government welfare schemes in places where such incidents take place, and the election or selection of chieftains should be held democratically instead of the present dynastic passage of power.
“Majority of the tribal chieftains are illiterate and don’t have knowledge about the Constitution but they enjoy political patronage,” he said.
The former lawmaker also suggested monthly meetings between police and all the stakeholders including the tribal chieftains.
The administration, with assistance from NGOs, conducts awareness campaigns in the most-affected areas of the state.
Nathu Singh Meena, Superintendent of Police (Rural) of East Singhbhum district, said that an anti-superstition drive is carried out in various police station areas two or three days a week.
“Though overall witch-craft-related incidents have declined, atrocities on women in connection with the practice are reported sometimes,” Meena said.