Samta* was cleaning rice inside her home when the men attacked. She had known they would come. Samta’s offerings of free health advice and medicinal herbs had angered a holy man in her village in the rural Dang district in Gujarat, a state in western India. The holy man made his living providing ritual sacrifices and herbal medicines for a hefty price and Samta’s generosity towards her villagers was damaging his business.
Before she was attacked, Samta had already experienced violence in her village. After her siblings died, Samta’s nephews had demanded she hand over her land. “They said a woman shouldn’t have it, that it belonged to them,” she tells SELF during an interview. “They wouldn’t even let me go on to my land to farm it. They would pick up big rocks when I walked there and they would throw the rocks at me.” She gestures with her hands to show the rocks were twice the size of her head.
First came the violence about the land. Then Samta started offering health advice, posing a threat to the holy man's business. And then came the men.
Villagers gathered outside Samta’s home to watch the attack. A group of men called her dakan, the Gujarati word for witch—a slur that can cost a woman her life in some regions of the country. They beat her with fists and feet and iron rods until Samta’s mouth was bloodied, her head pressed into the sand. She is lucky to have survived.
Samta's story is unfortunately not unique. Maahi*, who appears to be in her sixties, lives in a village close to where Samta lives. She, too, was accused of being a witch, and attacked. She believes she was accused of witchcraft because she owned a parcel of fertile land that was bequeathed to her by her father.
One day, Maahi’s nephews beat her so badly that she lost her two front teeth. She cries, pressing her finger to lower her bottom lip to show the empty space. “They said I had to give them my land. They said my mother had an affair and I wasn’t even my father’s daughter,” she says, crying harder.
More than 2,500 people have been assaulted and killed in witch hunts across India since 2000, according to estimates by the National Crime Records Bureau. The vast majority of them are believed to be women. Most states in India don’t record witch hunting as a specific type of crime; instead the attacks against women are logged as physical assault or murder with no mention of the woman being branded a witch, which makes it difficult to comprehend the true extent of the problem.
Those who survive say they were accused of sorcery to explain the death of a child, a sickness spreading through a village, or even bad weather. Sometimes, an accusation of witchcraft is made by men seeking to force a woman out of her home so they can claim her land. In other cases, a woman is asked to pay a hefty fine to a local leader or holy man as punishment for being a witch.
“All it takes is for someone to say there is an illness spreading and it must be this lady; then people go to her and ask questions and if the astrologer has said she’s a witch she will be taken on a donkey with a shaven head and then she’ll be thrown in the house and the house is burned,” Sanal Edamaruku, an activist fighting witch hunts and president of the India Rationalist Association, tells SELF. In Samta’s village, for instance, a local practice to determine if a woman is a witch involves placing lentils in a bowl of water. If the lentils float, the woman is said to be a witch.
The men rarely attack alone. Experts and activists say that the attacks often unfold as mob violence, involving torture in various forms. Neighbors, even family members, watch as women are strung up on trees or trapped in burning houses, their faces covered in crushed chili peppers, their limbs cut off with axes by a vengeful mob.
Witch hunts are not an exclusively Indian phenomenon, of course. They have occurred across the world and throughout history, from medieval witch hunts in Europe, to the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts, where thousands of women were killed in the late 1600s. Most recently, witch hunts have been documented in China, Tanzania, India, and other countries. A 2018 Nature study of witch hunts in modern China deduced that women were branded witches by fellow villagers who considered them rivals, and that the designation gets passed down the female line. Damaging a woman’s reputation and social standing was one way of outcompeting her for resources. In Tanzania, nearly 400 people were killed in witch hunts in the first half of 2016, according to police.
The reasons driving witch hunts vary across region and time period, but the underlying factors have always been misogyny, as well as a desire to punish women who don’t obey cultural norms, Soma Chaudhuri, a sociologist at Michigan State University, tells SELF. Chaudhuri studies gender violence; she finds witch hunts, though triggered by different factors in different places, tend to have one thing on common. “Even within India it’s very context-based and the reasons vary from region to region," she says. "But always there’s this need to overpower women and take what little they have.”
The context in some regions of rural India today is that women’s bodies and their lands are treacherously intertwined, particularly for tribal, or Adivasi, women. Witch hunts often begin with disputes over property—like in the case of Samta and Maahi. Men who are jealous about a woman’s crops or a home she inherited will accuse her of witchcraft to oust her from her property. Meanwhile, the very earth they're fighting for is in jeopardy. The Indian government is taking tribal land from the Adivasi communities to build hydroelectric dams.
Experts of gender violence in India say older women are more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. “Most of the women accused of witchcraft are old widows, lonely ladies,” Edamaruku says. Widowed, divorced, or living alone, they are perceived as wild, free and threatening. Some older women have inherited land from husbands or fathers that others seek to own. Killing a woman makes the land attainable and calling a woman a dakan makes her murder acceptable.
Local activists are working to address the problem in a variety of ways, from helping women protect their land from the government, as well as seeking justice for women injured and killed by witch hunts. Organizations like the Centre for Social Justice use the legal system to fight for the rights of women and marginalized people, such as Adivasi women who are attacked in witch hunts in Gujarat. They also use the law to protect women's assets. Another organization, ANANDI, an Indian non-profit, builds solidarity among those who are the victims of witch hunts or living in areas where women are targeted. The women support one another and help survivors of violence navigate the complex legal system.
Besides a number of NGOs in India fighting the practice, individual activists such as Birubala Rabha from the far-eastern state of Assam, where witch hunting is rife, are speaking up against the violence in an effort to raise awareness and change laws through popular support. Raised believing superstitions about witches, Rabha has spent the last 15 years in a crusade against witch hunting across India and is credited with spurring the Assam government to enact one of the country's strictest anti-witch hunting laws. More than half a dozen states in India have such laws; Gujurat, where Samta lives, is not one of them.
Another way that activists work to combat witch-hunting is through education. Edamaruku, for instance, has been fighting the practice of witch hunting in India since the '90s, traveling through villages and explaining that fevers and diarrheal illnesses are caused by infections such as cholera, not by witchcraft. His organization, the India Rationalist Association, uses science to explain what many believe to be miracles, such as a statue of Jesus, that, because of a leaking pipe, appeared to be weeping. Edamaruku lives in exile in Finland because of his work fighting superstition. He stands to go to prison for blasphemy if he returns to India because his relentless myth-busting has angered religious leaders who have cited a 90-year-old law from the British colonial era that could land him behind bars.
“My work is to protect women’s bodies and their land,” says Nikita Sonavane, a 25-year-old lawyer from Mumbai. Sonavane left behind friends who work in corporate law offices in the city and moved to Dang to work in the regional office of the Centre for Social Justice in September 2017. “Law school doesn’t establish a link between how the law can be used as a tool for social change,” she says. “That’s why this work was appealing... for people here, the law is extremely relevant.”
Sonavane gave up city living and moved to the village, a six hour drive from Mumbai along highways and country roads. She lives in a one room apartment with a small kitchenette near the center of Dang. A few days before she arrived at her new home, Sonavane learned a woman was murdered in a witch hunt in a village nearby. She grew even more determined to use her training to fight for women’s rights.
I meet Sonavane at her apartment on a December afternoon in 2017, with a plan to accompany her and her coworkers as they go about their work. On the day we meet, she is gathering information about a woman who had been murdered in a witch hunt in September, several months prior. Her goal is to help improve government records.
The woman, believed to be in her 60s, was attacked by a group of five men, among them accountants and religious leaders. They accused her of sorcery and stealing a statue from a temple and beat her to death.
Sonavane would have liked to visit the village within days of the murder, but it was unsafe, she says. “The men who killed her were powerful men," she says. "They hold a lot of sway. Even though we needed to get access to compare witness information with the [first information report], which we got from the police, it was too dangerous for us to go.”
Sonavane speaks energetically, using her hands for emphasis as we drive through rural farming communities toward the village where the woman was murdered. “All of this land you see,” she says, stretching out her arms and gesturing at the lush vegetation flying by, “all of it will be underwater by the next time you come back. People’s farms, homes, everything will be gone.” It’s another terror being perpetrated against the women, she explains. As well as campaigning to end the violence against their bodies, Sonavane finds ways to use her legal training to protect their homes and livelihoods. She treks from home to home in the villages and explains to women that she can use a law, the Forest Rights Act of 2006, to try and preserve the lands where they live and farm. Back in her office, Sonavane files paperwork for each woman, hoping to thwart the government’s dam expansion attempts.
When we reach the village where the woman was murdered, Sonavane walks through brush with her male co-worker, Rameshbhai Dhoom, the pair exchanging notes about the murder and what they had read in the crime report. Most villagers have left to sell sugarcane in the market, so Sonavane and Dhoom clear bushes out of their way and walk to the small, empty hut that had belonged to the murdered woman.
They are looking for people who saw the murder to compare eyewitness reports with information recorded by the police. A key first step is getting the police to add the word dakan to the official report. “Here in Dang they don’t always say the woman was killed in a witch hunt but it’s important they write that so we can get an accurate picture of the prevalence of witch hunting,” Sonavane says.
Dhoom talks with a neighbor while Sonavane sits on the stoop of the murdered woman’s home. Behind her lay two flat discs made of stone that the woman would have used to grind grain into flour. She looks out onto the small patch of land where the woman used to grow crops. “We try and gather facts and get justice,” she says, biting her lip. “But like with Samta’s case, the men you are up against are powerful and so you take the case to court but you lose.”
Samta had pursued her case through the courts, but all of the men who attacked her had been acquitted.
After a day gathering information, Sonavane and Dhoom return from visiting surrounding villages and sit on the floor in their office. A map of Gujarat hanging on the wall outlines the dam expansion project. It will inundate much of the land surrounding their office.
Sonavane invites local women into her office, sits with them on the floor and listens to their stories over cups of tea. “We have to keep pushing for a law that punishes men for defaming and murdering women,” she says.
*Names have been changed