Warning: This report contains depictions of violence that some readers may find disturbing.
“WE DON’T KNOW WHAT HAS HAPPENED!”
Abhay Ohri, a tribal doctor and activist, received a call from a volunteer of Jay Adivasi Yuva Shakti, a tribal youth organisation that he heads in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh. The panic-stricken volunteer asked Ohri to rush to the Ratlam Civil Hospital as soon as he could. “Rajaram Khadari’s body is here,” he said. “He is dead. Some ‘tantra-mantra’ was done on him.”
Ohri struggled to understand what he was being told. It was early in the morning on 20 February 2021, and he had just woken up. As he drove to the hospital in a hurry, thoughts of 27-year-old Rajaram Khadari crossed his mind. After him, it was only Rajaram who could become a doctor in their tribal village. Just a few days earlier, Rajaram had informed Ohri that he had finally been appointed as a government ayurvedic doctor after years of private practice. The colleagues had last met on the birthday of Rajaram’s two-year-old son, Adarsh. “It was just two months before his death,” Ohri told me when I met him in his clinic, in the summer of 2021.
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Upon reaching the old white colonial building of the hospital, Ohri saw Rajaram’s body. His entire corpse was coloured in kumkum—a red turmeric powder used during rituals. The body also had lacchas, or ritual yellow threads, tied at numerous places. “I am a doctor, I have examined thousands of corpses,” Ohri told me. “I was scared to look at Rajaram.” Rajaram’s arms and legs had impressions suggesting he had been chained. There were also many marks of injury from sharp objects. His body was bleeding even after his death.
Before Ohri reached the hospital, the staff had found an identification card in Rajaram’s pocket. It belonged to his 28-year-old wife, Seema Katara. The staff members realised it was the same Seema who worked as a nurse in their hospital. They tried to call her, but her phone was switched off. No one from their family was responding to calls. “I realised something is very wrong,” Ohri said. “I immediately asked the police to check their house.”
After getting initial information, a few police officers from the nearest police station, Shivgarh, reached Rajaram’s village, Thikariya, at around 8 am. Right outside his ancestral home—two well-built blue buildings on either side of the road—around nine women were swinging and chanting “Jai Ho.” All these women were relatives of Rajaram.
His parents, Thwari Bai and Kanhaiya Lal Khadari, had eight daughters and two sons—Rajaram and Vikram, who is 26 years old. While Santosh is the eldest daughter, it is their middle daughter, Tulsi Palasia, aged 40, who wields the most influence in the family. Tulsi is married to Radhey Shyam, and both live in Dharad village, about thirty-five kilometres from Thikariya. For the past three or four years, according to the police, she worked as a bhopa—a witch doctor. Tulsi believed that her 17-year-old son had supernatural powers and was an incarnation of Sheshnag, considered to be the king of all snakes. The Hindu deity Vishnu is often depicted resting on Sheshnag. Tulsi’s entire family, including her children Maya and another minor son, as well as Rahul, the son of her brother-in-law, were involved in the practice.
Bhopas are traditionally priest-singers in the Bhil tribal community. They perform in front of a phad—a long piece of cloth that serves as a portable temple, bearing various mantras and folk tales of local deities. Bhopas carry this phad along with them when invited by villagers to perform during times of sickness and misfortune.
When the police asked the chanting women to step aside, they threatened to curse the officers, claiming that they were manifestations of the Hindu goddess Durga. Sheena Khan, one of the police constables present that day, told me that no one could comprehend what was going on. The police decided to wait while reinforcements came in. Meanwhile, a crowd began assembling at the spot.
After ten minutes, someone inside opened a window for a few minutes. As Sheena approached the window, she saw two children sobbing. The police could also hear crying and shouting from inside.
“As we saw children inside, we were afraid of what might happen to them,” Sheena said. “God knows what was going on in that room.” Without further delay, the police decided to break the door and force their way in.
“I cannot forget what I saw there,” Sheena recalled. The room was filled with incense smoke, so much so that hardly anything was visible. There was blood, cracked coconuts, lemon, kumkum and kilos of burnt incense and wood. In one corner of the room, Tulsi’s daughter Maya was sitting on the stomach of Adarsh—the two-year-old son of Seema and Rajaram. Maya had the fingers of one hand inside Adarsh’s mouth, and held a sword in the other. Adarsh was already dead. In another corner, Tulsi was sitting on Thwari’s stomach, choking her at the neck while pulling her hair. Thwari was bleeding profusely from sword injuries. In a third corner, Vikram’s injured kids were screaming in horror while other family members held them. As the scene was broken up, Maya and Tulsi clung to the bodies of Adarsh and Thwari so tightly that it took three to five police officers to remove them.
“All of them were on their own trip,” Sheena told me. “Initially, they did not acknowledge police presence. Later, they started cursing us.” She recalled how the women were shouting that Seema was a daayan and a chudail—Hindi words for a witch. The women claimed that Seema had possessed Rajaram. If they killed the witch, Rajaram would come back to life.
That is when the police started searching for Seema. She was found on the other side of the road, in a room next to a cattle shed. She was injured, bleeding, unconscious but alive. Her parents had reached the place by then, and immediately took her to the hospital. A two-rupee coin was found stuck inside her throat, because of which she could not speak.
Among those arrested and charged with murder were Tulsi and her children, including Maya and the son she believed to be the incarnation of Sheshnag. Rahul was also arrested, as were Rajaram’s youngest siblings, Vikram and Sagar.
“They were talking insensibly,” Hemant Parmar, the head constable at Shivgarh police station, said. “I do not know if they were possessed by some deity or they were just pretending, but this behaviour went on for two days, 21 and 22 February, while they were kept in police custody.”
During that time, Tulsi and Maya claimed that Seema was possessed by Chainpura. Chainpura, a village around fifteen kilometres away from Thikariya, is home to the temples of various tribal deities. Ohri told me that Chainpura is considered a spirit in the area. Tulsi and Maya told the police that, on Sheshnag’s instructions, they were trying to save their family from the spirit’s influence.
The police investigation found that, in the ritual, Tulsi and her family were trying to kill the spirit, which they believed had possessed Seema. After Seema fell unconscious, they assumed the spirit had left her body and possessed her husband, Rajaram. After his death, they thought it had possessed Adarsh. After Adarsh died, they thought it had gone into Thwari’s body.
Seema was told eight days after the crime that her husband and child had died. She had to go through multiple procedures to remove the coin from her throat. She could not speak for a month, but she lived to tell the tale. I met her in July at the civil hospital. By then, she had returned to her duties as a nurse. She now lives with her mother and father, in a house she had bought with Rajaram.
“The ritual was tantric in nature,” Seema told me, “but they failed to successfully complete it.” She said that the ritual had been intended to harm her family because of her financial independence.
Seema broke with tradition in many ways. She was the first in her in-laws’ family to be educated and employed. “My father was a headmaster so he wanted his daughters to be educated,” she said. “Otherwise, none of the women in my family are educated.” She did not even change her surname after marriage—a big departure from the patriarchal norm.
Seema married Rajaram four years ago. They had shifted to their new house, in Ratlam, last year. The loan for the house was taken out in Seema’s name. Life was blissful. The couple had celebrated Adarsh’s second birthday in 2020.
On 22 February, Rajaram’s youngest sister, Sagar, and his eldest sister’s daughter, also named Seema, were both getting married in Thikariya. Most villagers in Thikariya belong to the Bhil tribal community. “They are very strict about their Bhil rituals,” Ohri told me. “They rarely let anyone who is not part of the Bhil community settle in the village land. Even if someone manages to buy land and starts living, the entire village isolates them.” Seema told me that, although the family was from the Bhil community, they had shared affinities for Hindu gods and celebrated many Hindu festivals.
Rajaram left for Thikariya on 10 February, around twelve days before the wedding, to prepare for the celebrations, while Seema stayed back in Ratlam because of her professional duties. She went for a day, on 16 February, before returning to Ratlam for work.
That same day, Sagar, the bride, fell sick.
TULSI CONVINCED HER FAMILY THAT SEEMA had done black magic on the bride, according to the police, and that the only way to counter her was to invite her 17-year-old son to perform a ritual. The family procured the materials required, including a sword, kumkum, coconuts and incense.
On the evening of 18 February, Seema arrived from Ratlam to participate in the wedding festivities. Around an hour after midnight, Vikram and the 17-year-old woke her up. Before she could react, they dragged her to a room in front of the house. Rajaram and his family were present in that room, she recalled. “I could not understand what was happening,” she said. “While chanting and cursing, they started removing whatever I was wearing, including my jewellery.”
She was made to sit in the middle of the room, barely clothed. Then, Tulsi, her children and Vikram started beating her. “While torturing me, they told me that I was a witch,” Seema said. “They asked me where I had kept all my money. They took the almirah keys from me.”
Seema had around Rs 2.5 lakh in the almirah. Even after taking that money, Seema told me, they kept beating her with rods and sharp objects. They took all her belongings, including clothes and make-up, and threw them into a stream a few kilometres behind their home.
She told me that her husband was present in the room, but neither beat her nor tried to rescue her. “He was mute, standing at a distance, while in the background very loud holy music was playing,” she said. “They did not stop for the whole night. Around midnight, they forced me to eat raw rice and pulses. They put kumkum on me and then forced me to swallow a two-rupee coin.” She started vomiting after swallowing the coin, “but they made me drink a lot of water, because of which the coin was stuck in my throat. I could not speak.”
After a night of torture, they tied Seema to an old banyan tree behind the house. She was unconscious through the day, so could not recall much of what was happening. She remembered trying to escape twice. In the evening, she was once again dragged to the room where she had been tortured the night before.
This time, her husband and child were targeted too. Tied up and chained, Rajaram was also fed raw rice and pulses, and kumkum was put on his body. As the family started beating him, Seema was locked in another room. She could not recall what happened after that.
“We recently bought a house in Ratlam,” Seema said. “They knew we had cash in the almirah for the wedding expenses. Maybe they thought they would manipulate us through this tantric act and eventually take all our money in the name of rituals.” She spoke of the discomfort she felt with her in-laws even before the horrific incident had taken place. “I noticed jealousy several times,” she said. “I would never leave my child with my sister-in-law because I knew they would not attend to him. There was always some sort of tension where they were not happy for our progress.”
Kanhaiya Lal, Tulsi’s father, considered a respected and wealthy man in Thikariya, was once the sarpanch of the village. He said Tulsi had mixed some intoxicating powder into the food, after which everyone agreed to do what she said. He later told me he was not present during the ritual because of a recent injury. The police corroborated this but said that they could not confirm if the family had been fed any intoxicant.
The 17-year-old, who is out on bail, told me a bit incoherently that he “was” an avatar of Sheshnag. He said his family had told him that Sheshnag was living in him, but that the deity is not living in him now. When I asked him what happened that night, he said it was “a tantric ritual” and that he did not remember the details.
Remorse was visible on the face of Kanhaiya Lal. Days after the ritual, Tulsi’s husband, Radhey Shyam, killed himself. A few days later, his father also died. While pointing towards a deep sword wound sustained by Thwari, Kanhaiya Lal said, “One of my sons is dead. Another one is in jail. Two weddings in my house were postponed.”
“Superstition ruined my family.”
THE STORY OF THE DEATH of Rajaram and his son is not a mere tale of tort. The murders are coloured with a deeply rooted belief in superstitions that is often ignored in the court of law.
In India, belief in black magic and paranormal healing is fairly common. During the course of my reporting, covering multiple states for over six months this year, I repeatedly encountered an unquestioned belief in devils, demons, ghosts, djinns and evil spirits. A recent Pew Research Centre survey on Indian religious practices revealed that nearly half of the Indian population believe in angels and spirits, 71 percent believe in purification by the Ganges, 38 percent in reincarnation, 76 percent in karma and 70 percent in fate. These beliefs are shared across religious groups, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.
Superstition pervades families across India, irrespective of geography, educational status or religious proclivities. This often manifest itself in quotidian ways. When someone buys a house or a new car, they might invite priests to perform rituals. Some might not eat non-vegetarian food on particular days of the week. Most households depend on astrological predictions to decide upon major life events, including marriage and career choices. These practices are believed to ward off evil or invite good luck. Godmen—a loose term that includes sadhus, gurus and tantriks—flourish in this environment.
For many, superstitions are a way to cope with uncertainty, to feel like they can control uncertain events. Vinod Shirsath, the editor of Sadhana, a socialist Marathi weekly, told me that since superstition is based on a false belief, it invokes either confidence or fear. For instance, the belief that “I can ace this exam if I take blessings of a certain godman” inspires confidence. The same thought can also instil fear: “If I do not take the blessing of a certain godman, I will fail.” Many godmen know how to exploit these sentiments.
Identifying something as a superstition generally gives it a pejorative hue. Yet many superstitious beliefs, because long and deeply held, are also considered integral parts of religious faith and granted the protections attached to it. This is true not just within Hinduism, but also in Christian, Islamic and tribal belief systems. Superstitions begin to seem less banal particularly when they fuel prejudices prevalent within communities. Superstitious beliefs often provide legitimacy to oppression and injustice, acting as a way to maintain the status quo in a society, villainise minorities and women, or to keep people in their places. On the darker end of this spectrum are superstition-based crimes, which can involve human sacrifice and allegations of witchcraft.
Ohri told me he has seen many such superstitious acts in the tribal belt. “When I was posted as a doctor in the tribal Malwa region, I saw many people prefer such bhopas, ojhas and tantriks over doctors,” he said. “What happened with Rajaram is not rare.”
There is no way to know if what happened with Rajaram is rare or not. India does not consistently compile data on superstition-related crimes. There are no nationwide laws against it. The National Crime Records Bureau started collecting data on human sacrifice and witch-hunting as motives for murder in 2013, but stopped within two years. Even in that period, thousands of such crimes were recorded. The full spread and growth of such superstition-based crimes is unclear, but anecdotal evidence and the frequency with which such cases are reported in local newspapers suggest that they are flourishing. Godmen, many of whom believe in black magic and practice superstitious rituals, are getting more organised and growing in public stature.
Where there is superstition, there is also a battle against it. But, while India has a lineage of rationalists and sceptics, the murders of its leading icons demonstrate how imperilled these figures are. Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist who was among those demanding a stringent anti-superstition law, was assassinated in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, in which the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi was elected prime minister. Within a year of Modi taking office, the rationalist Govind Pansare was also assassinated in Maharashtra, and another rationalist, MM Kalburgi, was assassinated in Karnataka. A police investigation found that Kalburgi’s statements made during a discussion on an anti-superstition bill were perceived as “anti-Hindu,” and had been the trigger for the attack on him.
Soon after Dabholkar’s death, the government of Maharashtra—then a coalition of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party—passed the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. This was the first state-level anti-superstition law, but many believe it was adopted as a kneejerk reaction and remains a much-diluted version of what Dabholkar wanted. Its stated aim is “to bring social awakening and awareness in the society,” “to create a healthy and safe social environment with a view to protect the common people in the society against the evil and sinister practices thriving on ignorance,” and to eradicate “practices propagated in the name of so called supernatural or magical powers or evil spirits commonly known as black magic.” But the law fails even to define what superstition is.
“We got an anti-superstition law in Maharashtra, full of loopholes, after eighteen years of struggle,” Ranjana Gavande told me. “How can we even expect a central law?” Gavande is a grassroots worker with the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an organisation founded by Dabholkar, and has been an anti-superstition activist for twenty years. “Getting a central law is a distant dream,” she said. Karnataka passed an anti-superstition law of its own in 2017, but this too was a diluted version.
According to Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, the rise of Hindutva exacerbated an atmosphere of superstition. “Since a superstitious mindset is promoted by the Sangh Parivar and its fellow travellers, including Baba Ramdev, people are more prepared to acknowledge the non-scientific temperament,” he told me. “Hindutva propagandists try to make people believe that Modi is some godman, that he is endowed with supernatural power. There are stories of how, during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, he survived poisoning, and that he swam with crocodiles in his childhood.”
Under Modi’s leadership, superstitious practices have gained more legitimacy. Especially during the pandemic, superstitions and false remedies have found a free playground. These have ranged from the laughable to the dangerous: from a minister getting people to chant “go corona go” as a defence against the coronavirus to public figures advocating cow urine as a prophylactic or cure. Modi himself insisted that Indians bang utensils or light a diya for nine minutes at 9 pm, as a gesture of solidarity in the country’s coronavirus fight. These events spawned many bogus theories about the supposed scientific principles behind such strategies, which were spread far and wide on social media. Faced with enormous government mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and driven by prevailing sociocultural beliefs and a lack of awareness, many have preferred faith healers over doctors.
Superstitious practices are not limited to the BJP. Previous leaders, including the Congress prime ministers Indira Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao, are known to have conducted private rituals. Gandhi “privately” performed the Lakshachandi Path, in which a hundred thousand verses are recited to invoke the goddess Chandi, at the Kali temple in Jhansi, to protect her son Sanjay after the Emergency. The rituals continued in secret from 1979 to 1983. Rao was an ardent follower of Chandraswami, a self-styled godman. According to Jacob Copeman and Aya Ikegame’s book The Guru in South Asia, Chandraswami had become “more or less a ‘secret’ counsellor of politicians” and had a role to play in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Chandraswami contested allegations of performing sacrificial rites to help Rao become prime minister. Jaffrelot told me that the fact such practices take place in secret, without public knowledge, is an indication that Indian politicians truly believe in them. “They know that people may look at them differently if they were practising tantra publicly, yet such practices have gained momentum now,” he said.
Jaffrelot told me that politicians often feel that they need the moral support of spiritual power. They believe supernatural powers can help them overcome their political opponents. “It is a really interesting give-and-take kind of attitude which prospers between tantriks and politicians,” Jaffrelot said. “It is a classic way of mutual support. Tantriks need political protection, politicians need tantric power to neutralise their opponents and the evil eye. Both tend to return the favour whenever they can.” Many of these relations are hidden from public view. “The magic is sanitised to make it compatible with the dominant Hindu identity, the Great Tradition, that is so different from this facet of popular religion,” Jaffrelot said. “Politicians understand that both should not clash.”
Before the 2015 state elections in Bihar, a video went viral showing Nitish Kumar, the state’s chief minister and the head of the Janata Dal (United), in the company of a tantrik. The tantrik could be seen speaking against Kumar’s political rival Lalu Prasad Yadav. In an opinion piece for the Indian Express soon after the video appeared, Jaffrelot argued that Kumar was not apologetic for the event despite political backlash. “This is revealing of the growing acceptability of practices that, till recently, had to remain secret,” he wrote. “Just before the 2009 general elections, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had accused L.K. Advani of resorting to black magic and approaching tantrics to get to the seat of power. The BJP leader had then opted for the denial mode, but times are changing and the rational mindset is not the alpha and omega of the political discourse anymore.”
A few years after the assassinations of Pansare and Kalburgi, it was evident that godmen and their rituals no longer seemed as closeted in New India. In 2018, the BJP promoted a weeklong Rashtriya Raksha Mahayagya, or grand ceremonial fire, on the sprawling lawns outside Delhi’s Red Fort, where the prime minister hoists the flag and delivers a speech every Independence Day. The Mahayagya was held in preparation for the general election of 2019 to “blunt conspiracies hatched by the country’s inimical forces,” according to the former BJP MP Maheish Girri—the event’s chief organiser. “There are external and internal forces who are attempting to harm the country’s interests,” Girri said at a press conference. “We are organising the Yagya following our ancient traditions to thwart such attempts and to take a pledge to create a ‘New India.’”
The extravagant affair, whose dates corresponded with the Hindu New Year, involved 1,111 priests and 108 ceremonial fires. Girri claimed that such a yagya was being organised after eleven hundred years. For the ceremonial fire, soil and water were brought in from Doklam, where Indian and Chinese troops were locked in a standoff, and from Poonch, located near the Line of Control. These were transported in a Rath Yatra flagged off by Rajnath Singh, who was then the home minister. Soil was also brought in from four major Hindu pilgrimage sites: Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameswaram. A report in Jansatta said that the deity Baglamukhi—one of the ten Tantric Mahavidyas—was invoked during the Mahayagya. “It is believed that Baglamukhi is worshipped to oppress and destruct enemies,” the report said.
The use of ritual and religious ceremony are more common in the country’s politics than ever before. Rajnath Singh, now the defence minister, performed a “shastra puja” on a new Rafale fighter jet delivered from France in 2019. He placed a coconut on top of the aircraft and lemons underneath it. “For New India, tradition and power come hand in hand,” Pradip Parmar, a BJP politician and minister in the Gujarat government, tweeted.
The growing acceptability of such rituals in the public sphere leaves the door open for superstitious beliefs to proliferate in the new India. As I saw in the course of my reporting, such beliefs can inspire not just rituals, but also heinous crimes.
GANGA DUSSEHRA IS CELEBRATED in the plains of north India every June. It is believed that the goddess Ganga, a personification of the River Ganges, descended from heaven on the tenth day of the month of Jyeshtha—the month of the Hindu calendar that overlaps May and June. In 2019, Ganga Dussehra was celebrated on 12 June. Hindu astrologers claimed that this was a divine date that had come after 75 years. Regional newspapers preached that those who took a dip in the Ganges on that day while chanting a mantra could erase ten sins.
Sankara, a village near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, stands on the banks of the Ganges. It is dominated by Yadavs, categorised as Other Backward Classes in the state. On the evening of 12 June 2019, hundreds of people arrived at the village’s ghat to bathe in the river. That same day, police officials told me, a 32-year-old woman named Rajni Yadav was drowned by her husband, Maanpal Yadav, a man in his fifties.
Rajni’s brother Rajesh was a witness to her murder. He was visiting Sankara with his cousins from nearby Ratroi to celebrate Ganga Dussehra. As soon as he reached Rajni’s house that evening, she took him to her room. “She was worried,” Rajesh told me.
Rajni started the conversation awkwardly, Rajesh recalled. She told him that certain things are not meant to be discussed, but she felt there was no other option left. She said her husband was forcing her to develop a sexual relationship with a sadhu called Sant Das Jharkhandi. In return, Jharkhandi had promised to make Maanpal rich. Rajni told Rajesh that Maanpal had threatened to kill her if she disobeyed.
Rajesh immediately confronted Maanpal. He asked Maanpal what kind of man asks his wife to sleep with someone else. But Maanpal was not ready to listen and told Rajesh that he would do whatever his guru told him. He repeated to Rajesh that if Rajni disobeyed, he would kill her. Maanpal slammed the door and left, while Rajesh tried to comfort a sobbing Rajni.
Rajesh told her to immediately pack her things and come back to Ratroi with him. Meanwhile, he went to take a bath in the Ganges with his cousins. “Who would have thought that Maanpal would kill her right after I stepped out of the house?” Rajesh said. “It happened in minutes.”
Rajesh was bathing in the river when he saw Maanpal dragging Rajni by her hair. “She was shouting, calling for help,” he told me. Her red sari contrasted against the green fields next to the river, he recalled. “We were around three hundred meters away from her. By the time I reached that end of the river, she was already gone with the water currents. I saw Maanpal swimming across the river.”
The next day, Rajesh registered a complaint at Aligarh’s Dadon police station. He stated in the first-information report that his sister had been killed by Maanpal because she refused to have sex with Jharkhandi. Maanpal and Jharkhandi were arrested soon after, and charged with murder and voluntarily causing hurt, as well as criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence.
When I met them in Ratroi, Rajni’s parents told me they had always been concerned about Maanpal’s propensity for violence. Maanpal had first spotted Rajni at their eldest daughter’s house, they said. Maanpal was visiting neighbouring villages as part of a Bajrang Dal campaign when he saw her. Maanpal found Rajni attractive and decided there and then that he would marry her. Within a few days, they were wed.
Rajni’s parents said that they now regret this hasty decision. “We got to know after Rajni was married that Maanpal already had two children from his last marriage,” Ram Sakhi, Rajni’s mother, said. She alleged that Maanpal had also killed his first wife. “People told us that she was pregnant but, despite that, Maanpal used to beat her,” Bhup Singh, Rajni’s father, said. “Once, he kicked her womb with such force that she died.” Maanpal denied this when I met him. He claimed that his first wife died in an accident.
Rajni’s parents said that they had known about Jharkhandi’s involvement in her domestic life for months before her death, and that Maanpal and Jharkhandi used to spend their days and nights together. Bhup Singh said that they smoked cannabis. “Rajni was so sick of his addiction, but whenever she complained, he would beat her up,” Ram Sakhi said. “He was so brutal that he would not even spare her in front of her kids.” Maanpal told me that he collected donations over two years to make a two-room home for his guru near his fields. Before that, the godman lived at a cremation spot on the river bank.
Shailendra Yadav, a police sub-inspector, also noticed the “close” relationship between Maanpal and Jharkhandi. He recalled the scene in the police station after their arrest. “Maanpal was the first one to be arrested, but shortly after his tantrik was also produced. In front of the media and senior officials, Maanpal started crying. He asked us why we had arrested his guruji. He told us to spare his guru and arrest him instead.” Both of them are closely linked with the BJP. Maanpal said that the party shelters tantriks, seers and sadhus. Jharkhandi is a disciple of the Terah Bhai Tyagis, a Vaishnavite monastic order. Jharkhandi’s guru boasted to me of their links with Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Vasundhara Raje, a former chief minister of Rajasthan.
Both Maanpal and Jharkhandi were granted bail by the Allahabad High Court within months. The trial has moved at a snail’s pace. Both men have the same lawyer, Subhash Chandra Sharma, who is also an ardent follower of Jharkhandi.
Maanpal told me that Rajni drowned because of the high flow of the Ganges, and Jharkhandi claimed that he had never even seen her face. Both alleged that the charges against them are part of a larger conspiracy by people who want to defame Hindus and their holy work.
Jharkhandi is a young godman, in his thirties. He refers to himself as Mahatma. His matted beard is not that long, while his dreadlocks hang down to a little below his shoulders. He appeared young but, just to give me an idea of how young he was, he told me he was initiated as a Tera Bhai Tyagi sadhu just six years ago, at the Nashik Kumbh Mela. His guru, as per the tradition of sadhus, passed on a secret mantra in this “guru diksha.”
Amit Sharma, a Mathura-based journalist, told me that Jharkhandi’s guru is considered one of the most prominent sadhus in the region. He also has significant clout in regional politics, so much so that Adityanath listens to him. In Uttar Pradesh, Sharma said, sadhus are part of the ruling dispensation. “In fact, the chief minister himself is a priest,” he explained. “Each sadhu has between two thousand and twenty thousand followers. If that sadhu asks to vote for a particular candidate, it makes a huge difference in regional politics. The government understands it.” According to news reports, the Terah Bhai Tyagis contributed Rs 1.11 crore for the construction of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya.
I met Jharkhandi’s guru at his Mathura ashram during Guru Purnima, a Hindu festival that celebrates teacher-student relationships. Mahant Ram Swaroop Das, a man in his sixties clad in a saffron robe, was expecting me. He is more commonly known as Brahmachariji Maharaj and holds the title of mahamandaleshwar—the head of a monastic order.
Maanpal, out on bail, was present. Their lawyer had also visited Mathura from Aligarh to pay his respects to Jharkhandi and Swaroop Das. As I started talking to Swaroop Das in his air-conditioned room, many of his followers sat down and listened to our conversation. Some of them offered him gifts of sweets, fruits and money.
Swaroop Das listed his credentials. He said that he was the top sadhu of the Terah Bhai Tyagi order, which had hundreds of sadhus and tantriks as members—including Narendra Modi’s guru, Abhiram Das Tyagi. After Modi left home in his youth, Swaroop Das said, he spent several days at Abhiram Das’s ashram and left only after meeting him. Some vernacular news reports also mention this. “Even today, Modi, his mother, Hiraben, and his younger brother, Pankaj, follow the guruji,” Swaroop Das said. “They even have Abhiram Dasji’s photo in their house.” Some local papers reported that Pankaj visited the guru before the 2019 general election, and that the two had had “long conversations in solitude.”
Aaditya Mishra, a local BJP leader who was visiting the ashram for Guru Purnima, spoke of how well connected Swaroop Das was. “When Vasundhara Raje was chief minister of Rajasthan, she organised a big havan where Maharajji was the priest,” he said. “She shares a deep guru-bhav”—teacher-student—“relation with Maharajji and has remained his disciple for long.” Mishra said that this year, in the lead-up to the Ardha-Kumbha in Vrindavan, Swaroop Das was one of only two ascetics allowed to question Adityanath.
When I asked Swaroop Das about his close ties with BJP and RSS leaders, he told me that he only knows them because of his ceremonial duties. He said that his relationship with Raje went back years, and that her mother had also held him in high regard. During Raje’s tenure as chief minister, he added, she gave him a grant to build a temple at his ashram in Bundi, near Kota, and ensured that it was completed. “Both mother and daughter have deep dedication for saints and mahatmas,” he said. I sent questions to Adityanath and Raje asking about their connection with Swaroop Das, but received no response.
Jharkhandi claimed that he never took Swaroop Das’s help for his case despite his reach. “He was hurt when I was implicated in Rajni’s murder—after all, the relationship between a guru and shishya is no less than a son and father,” he told me. “He got to know months after I was arrested. After I got bail, he just asked me to stay with him in his ashram, and I followed his instructions.”
Maanpal told me that Jharkhandi had taken care of all legal expenses, but later said that his elder brother had done so. Their lawyer told me he did not charge them a fee at all. “They are saintly people, what fees can I take from them?” Jharkhandi told me his sister paid for the legal expenses.
Swaroop Das was not keen to discuss the murder allegations against Jharkhandi. “We Terah Bhai Tyagis believe in tyag”—sacrifice—he said. He described the difficult processes of meditation they go through—one practice, he claimed, entailed being amid burning balls of cow dung. He said that someone with mala fide intentions of defaming holy Hindu priests had framed his disciple. “It is all a big conspiracy,” he said. “How can someone who keeps on chanting the name of god be capable of doing something like this?”
IN JULY 2021, I VISITED THE SHRINE of Hussain Tekri, in the city of Jaora, near Ratlam. There, I saw men and women chained to pillars, shouting, laughing and crying. Some were trying to break the chains, while others were chanting the names of various spirits. The relatives and acquaintances surrounding them believed that their bodies were possessed by spirits. As a treatment, some people were tortured. Many were given electric shocks. Women had their hair pulled. Men were beaten.
Mohammad Iftikhar Ali Khan Bahadur, the nineteenth-century nawab of Jaora, is buried in the same graveyard where the two-hundred-year-old shrine of Hussain Tekri stands. Thousands of people from across India visit the six shrines of Hussain Tekri, known for Hazri rituals intended to cure “human” ailments. A belief that evil spirits leave the body when they come into contact with the religious powers of the shrine abides even today.
To know if the spirit has left the body of the victim, a ritual called faisla—decision—is performed. A lemon is nailed onto the trunk of a dead tree at the shrine. The lemon is bound with thread and a piece of cloth—either red or black, depending upon the nature of the spirit supposed to have possessed them. The victim reveals during the faisla if the spirit has left their body or not.
The people I met at Tekri had common bodily ailments, such as stomach aches, headaches and backaches. Some were suffering from cognitive diseases. Instead of seeking medical treatment, people from far-off states had come to his shrine in Madhya Pradesh in search of healing. Surprisingly, most of the visitors at the shrine were Hindus and Jains. Various researchers have shown that the “brotherhood of sickness” tends to be inclusive in India. A 2011 study found that “Hindus tend to appeal to Muslim ritual within the Dargah” despite their own traditions to seek remedy for illness.
Believers assert that faith-healing can initiate the cure of disease and disability. The healing process can include a demonstration of faith, a prayer or a ritual, or even torture and human sacrifice.
Despite the pandemic, thousands of people still flock to such shrines, temples, dargahs, godmen and tantriks. India spends a tiny fraction of its budget on public healthcare. Even in spending that minuscule fraction, expenditure on mental health comes last. In fact, the government encourages people to reach out to faith healers for “spiritual” treatments. The ministry of health and family welfare mentions on its website that “recent research has shown that religious practices can be helpful in curing and preventing physical and mental illnesses.” It adds, “When medical care becomes unaffordable, futile, and of no use, spiritual care is absolutely feasible, and a logical solution.”
Around forty-five kilometres from Husain Tekri, in Nayapura, is the baithak—hall—of Anwar Shah, a faith healer. Nayapura is a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. Shah was famous as “chumma baba,” or the kissing godman, in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. People visited him to seek jhad-phoonk—spiritual healing through magic. His followers believed that he could cure disability, diseases and bad luck. He would recite Quranic verses in front of those seeking his blessings, then write those verses on two separate pieces of papers with ink made using saffron. One paper would be dissolved in water that was to be drunk by the seeker, while the other would be tied into an amulet for the seeker. In the end, the baba would take the hands of the seeker, kiss them and put his hands on the seeker’s head to bless them.
Many people whom I met claimed that they were healed by Shah. Mohamad Aslam, a 50-year-old resident of Mominpura, had come to seek treatment for piles. “I had already undergone multiple operations for the treatment of piles but it returned once again,” he told me. “The doctor had told me that four or five more operations are still needed. I was in a very bad condition when I went to seek dua from Chumma Baba.” Shah did his thing and gave him an amulet. Aslam described a placebo effect. “I felt something peaceful from inside. My body had goosebumps. I felt sifat”—good health. “When I visited the doctor, he told me I no longer need the operation. Some ailments cannot be cured by doctors.”
“Seeking help from traditional and faith-healing places is very common in India,” Kishore Kumar, a psychiatrist and director of The Banyan—an NGO offering mental-health services—told me. “Persons experiencing distress seek faith healers immediately thinking that suffering is due to wrath or curse or possession or evil eye. The supernatural explanation such as evil spirits, black magic, past sins, failed wows, astrology, ancestors, fault in the stars or anger of spirits is consistent with their belief. If the care providers give this kind of explanation, it validates the patients’ beliefs. They readily agree to solutions like a visit to temples, dargahs et cetera, even if it involves torture in the name of treatment.”
On 4 June 2020, Shah died from COVID-19. He had tested positive for the coronavirus the previous day, after complaining of a cough and fever. Within a few days, local officials responsible for contact-tracing and quarantining estimated that 23 out of 50 people who had come in contact with Shah had tested positive. The medical team claimed that most of the positive contacts had visited him to seek faith-based healing. The entire area of Nayapura was declared a containment zone. Shah was officially the third person to die of COVID-19 in Ratlam.
Shah’s death and subsequent stories of his black magic made national headlines. This was around the time when BJP leaders and the right-wing media were demonising all Muslims, holding them responsible for a spike in COVID-19 cases, because of a Tablighi Jamat congregation that had been identified as a spreader event. Various media reports misidentified Anwar as “Aslam” and ran clickbait-y, Islamophobic news clips.
I visited Nayapura just days before Bakr Eid in 2021, within weeks of the second COVID-19 wave. Although Ratlam was one of the worst-affected districts during the second wave, large crowds of people were standing around, chatting and laughing, as if nothing had happened. I visited the house where Shah had lived and practised his faith-healing.
Shah had created a musalla—a space dedicated for prayer—in the house. The room was decorated with various spiritual and paranormal artefacts he had collected over the years. At the centre of it were a kasa, sanad and kubdi—a bowl to seek blessings, a beaded necklace and a stick to support the old—which had been in his family for generations. The room also had some Hindu religious artefacts.
The family told me that Shah had received hardly any income from his supernatural business, but their house seemed to be better built and kept than many in the neighbourhood. “Most of his followers were Jains and Hindus who controlled the major businesses in Ratlam,” Javed, his son, said.
Jiten Parihar, a 36-year-old computer technician from Ramgarh, in Ratlam, who identifies as Hindu, worshipped Shah as his “god” for more than five years. “I used to visit Baba at least twice or thrice a month,” he told me. “He too came to our house to bless us. It is because of him that my business as a computer technician grew. I am what I am because of him.” When I asked him why he followed a Muslim faith healer, he said, “It is my belief. There are no questions in belief. How does it matter that I am a Hindu?”
When Parihar came to know about Shah’s death, he was not present in Ratlam. He could not travel back for the funeral, because transport services had not resumed. “I locked myself in a room and cried for hours,” he told me. “I could not believe that he was no more. How could that happen?” Over a year has passed since, but Parihar still regularly visits Shah’s grave and baithak. “Because of the coronavirus, no one could bid him goodbye,” he said. “Who knows if he is still alive? I can feel his presence.”
WHEN SCIENCE COLLIDES WITH SUPERSTITION, the result is often resistance and anger. This is what happened when the police and doctors tried to test and quarantine faith healers and seekers in Ratlam after Shah’s death. “Most of them lied to our face,” Vicky Sangla, a member of the contact-tracing team, told me. “No one would agree that they had contact with Anwar Shah. So many of them fled Nayapura for fear of being tested. Every day I returned with my team and found more people in the house hidden. A family had dunked their teenage kids in a water tank on the roof for two days. This was the extent of reluctance.”
The disbelief about COVID-19 and its potential to kill extended to Shah’s family too. “I refuse to believe my husband died because of coronavirus,” Mahrool, his widow, said with tears in her eyes. “Coronavirus is a myth.”
“It has been two years since COVID-19 has wrecked the world, despite that many people still believe that it is a myth,” Ranjana Gavande said. “It is not surprising. This is one deadly disease with no established treatment, medicines or research. It is a hotbed for breeding superstition.”
On 24 January this year, V Padmaja and her husband, V Purushotham Naidu—both teachers in Madanapalle, a town in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district—murdered their daughters thinking that they would return from the dead. When police reached the spot, they found the head of the elder daughter, Alekhya, battered by a dumbbell in the family’s prayer room. Her hair was burnt, and she had metal stuffed into her mouth. Sai Divya, the younger daughter, had been killed with a trident. Her head, too, was battered with a dumbbell.
The naked corpses of the girls were lying in pools of blood. When the police went in to collect them, Padmaja objected. She urged them to leave the bodies “just for a day.” When the police insisted, she started shouting at them. She said that “god” was all over the house, and harangued them for walking around in their shoes and trying to take her daughters when they were not wearing any clothes. “Don’t do it,” she told them.
When the police asked the parents what had happened, they insisted that their daughters would come alive after sunrise—Kali Yuga would end, they said, and Satya Yuga would begin. The Kali Yuga, believed in Hindu cosmology to be the present epoch of human history, is characterised as full of conflict and sin. It is said to be followed by the Satya Yuga, an age of truth in which humanity is governed by the gods.
The couple, who were arrested and charged with murder, were incoherent. While being tested for COVID-19, Padmaja told hospital staff that the coronavirus had not originated in China. She said it had come from the Hindu deity Shiva, and added, “I am Shiva and corona will be gone by March.”
Having pled insanity, the couple is currently out on bail. Some reports said that the family suffered from a rare psychotic condition called “shared delusional disorder,” which grew more severe through the pandemic due to months of lockdown-imposed isolation. This disorder is also called shared psychosis, or “madness shared by many,” where delusional beliefs and hallucinations are transmitted from one individual to another, often within families.
In their confessions, the parents told police that Divya had been ill for a week, after which she developed a phobia that she would die. The district’s police superintendent told me that the parents had approached a priest just a day before the murders. The priest did a small ritual and tied a string around the girl’s hand. Alekhya, hugely influenced by Shiva, had refused medical care.
THE WIDELY REPORTED ABDUCTION, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, in Jammu and Kashmir, shocked the country in 2018. As per the charge sheet, the girl was abducted on 10 January and kept in a devisthan—an ancestral sacred hall—under a table covered with mats. She was made to eat manar—a form of bhang, which is considered a prasad of Shiva. The girl was left in the devisthan for five days while the accused regularly came to worship deities and perform rituals. On 13 January, the day of Lohri, she was raped multiple times and eventually killed. Her body was dumped in a jungle because a fanda—an exorcism ritual—was to be held in the devisthan the next day.
What was even more shocking was the support the accused received after they were arrested. A theory was floated that the case was a conspiracy to defame Hindus, and local BJP leaders jumped to defend the accused. They stated that the arrests were motivated by “vested political interests to divide the country.” Two months after the body was found, Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, both ministers in the state government from the BJP, held a rally to support the accused.
In July 2020, I visited Rasana, the small village in Kathua with less than twenty-five households where the incident took place. All families that reside in Rasana take immense pride in their Brahmin identity. Most villagers identify themselves as Jangotra Bhramins, also known as Khajurias and Sharmas. The girl belonged to a Sunni Muslim nomadic tribe, the Gujjar Bakarwal.
I conducted nearly two dozen interviews, including with the families of the victim and the accused, as well as neighbours, priests and police officers. Without getting into the merits and details of the investigations and court proceedings, their accounts pointed towards a new dimension to the case that had gone unexplored: the ritualistic nature of the rape and murder.
On 12 January 2018, the girl’s father had complained to the Hiranagar police station that his daughter had been missing for two days. She had last been seen with other Bakarwal children, taking horses to graze. The horses came back by the evening, but she did not return home. Her family got worried. They searched the woods, thinking some wild animal might have attacked her. They also looked around in other Bakarwal tents, but no one could locate her.
The girl was one year old when her parents had adopted her, having earlier lost their two biological daughters in a tragic accident. She grew up in their nomadic household along with their only surviving son. The family and their livestock—sheep, goats, horses and cows—reside in the plains of Kathua during the winters. In summers, they migrate to the remote Himalayan ranges in Shapatnala, in Ladakh. Each Bakarwal clan follows a certain traditional route to a particular pasture suitable for their livestock. The girl’s family has been following this route for years.
The father told me that he did not want this harsh life for his children. He wanted to educate them, which is why he thought of temporarily settling in Kathua. He bought land in Rasana in 2004 and, by 2008, he constructed a house there. “I thought the children could stay there to study while we could graze the cattle,” he told me. Most Bakarwals have done something similar in recent years, but only he had built a house in the Brahmin settlement. Other Bakarwals in the area either lived in seasonal tents or in villages up on higher terrain.
A woman from Rasana had last seen the girl around the pond where Bakarwals usually brought their animals to drink. This pond was a few metres away from the devisthan, which was dedicated to the villagers’ ancestral deity, Baba Kaliveer. People throughout Jammu worship Kaliveer as an incarnation of Sheshnag.
A day after the girl’s disappearance, her mother visited the devisthan. She was desperate and had heard that Sanjhi Ram could foretell the future. “As I saw the door of the devisthan open, I unknowingly went inside with my shoes on,” she told me. Sanjhi was shocked, she said, and began shouting at her about this. “Without even listening to me, he claimed that he does not have my horses and asked me to leave. I told him that I am not looking for horses but for my daughter. At that time, two women were sitting in the devisthan seeking some spiritual guidance on their issues from Sanjhi. I also sat on the side.”
She recalled, “He asked me why I had come to the devisthan. I told him that I am aware that he looks into people’s ‘hisab’ and can predict the future.” By hisab, the mother meant the kundali, or horoscope. She asked Sanjhi to tell her where her girl was.
“As I asked him, he got silent and, after a few minutes, asked the two other ladies to leave,” she told me. “As the women left, he looked into my eyes and told me that my daughter is in someone’s home. She is well-fed and resting. He asked me to not worry and return to my home.” Sanjhi Ram started chanting mantras and lighting diyas, and she left.
According to the police charge sheet, the girl’s body was found on 17 January and taken into police custody for an autopsy. Further police investigations found that Sanjhi Ram had masterminded the whole thing, that he had directed another accused “to execute the plan of kidnapping and to give some intoxicant to the girl and thereafter confine her at Devisthan in the first instance.”
The charge sheet states that, on the morning of Lohri, Sanjhi Ram first performed some rituals with the other accused. He then left “the Devisthan from the back gate to perform some rituals and met Deepak Khajuria.” Meanwhile, the girl was raped inside the devisthan multiple times. That evening, one of the accused informed Sanjhi Ram that he, along with other men, had raped the girl inside the devisthan. “Accused Sanjhi Ram directed JCL that the time was ripe to kill the girl so as to achieve the ultimate goal of criminal conspiracy hatched among the accused,” the charge sheet states.
That night, the charge sheet adds, the girl was taken to a culvert in front of the devisthan. The men raped the girl once more before killing her. Khajuria then “kept the girl’s neck on his left thigh and started applying force with his hands on her neck in order to kill her.” Then, one of the accused strangled her with her dupatta. To ensure that she was dead, the girl was twice hit on her head with a stone. The charge sheet also says that, on 15 January, Sanjhi Ram “directed to throw the dead body in the jungle as it was not safe to keep it inside Devisthan anymore. People were likely to visit Devisthan on the following day for Fanda, which was to be performed by accused Sanji Ram himself.”
I asked Shwetambari Sharma, a deputy superintendent and the only woman in the six-member special-investigation team set up by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, what fanda means. She said it is “jhad-phoonk that people usually do.” I asked her about the procedure involved in this jhad-phoonk. She said that, since the verdict in the case was being challenged in court, she could not comment about it.
At the time of the incident, the BJP was part of a coalition government in the state with the Peoples Democratic Party. The PDP leader and chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, indicated that she might be forced to end the alliance if the BJP stopped her from providing justice to the girl’s family. Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, the ministers who had rallied in support of the accused, were forced to resign. Alleging that the BJP itself had asked both ministers to attend the rally, Ganga termed his resignation a “sacrifice” to save the BJP’s image.
Chaudhary told me it was an insult to Hinduism that the devisthan had been dragged into this whole controversy. He argued that the girl had not been raped, only murdered. “However, an investigation by Central Bureau of Investigation was the only way to know who her murderers were,” he said.
Mufti was firm that the state police, and not the CBI—which reports to the BJP-led government at the centre—should continue the investigation. In June that year, the BJP broke the coalition, stating that the Mufti government had “failed in its responsibility,” that “violence increased in the Valley” and that “fundamental rights are under threat.” There was no evidence that the Kathua rape was the reason behind the rift, but the incident became a major political sore point.
It seemed to many that the extent to which BJP leaders defended the accused indicated they had many things to hide regarding the Kathua case. Chaudhary told me that Jitendra Singh, a minister of state for the prime minister’s office who is known to be close to Modi, was involved in discussions around transferring the case to the CBI. Locals I spoke to who also wanted to see the investigation handed over to the CBI also mentioned Singh’s involvement in political negotiations. Many expressed their disappointment that he had failed to ensure the transfer of the case. I reached out to Singh with questions, but he did not respond.
The case was shifted from Kathua to Pathankot, a district in Punjab that borders Jammu, in May 2018, after the Supreme Court acknowledged a threat to the lawyer and parents of the girl amid growing resistance by Hindu-nationalist groups. The previous month, lawyers in the Kathua court complex had ganged up to prevent police from filing the charge sheet.
In June 2019, after examining over a hundred witnesses, a district court in Pathankot convicted Sanjhi Ram and five other men of kidnapping, torture, rape and murder. The court sentenced Sanjhi Ram, a former police officer named Deepak Khajuria, and a native of Rasana named Parvesh Kumar to life terms for murder and to 25 years in prison for rape. Sanjhi’s son Vishal Jangotra was acquitted due to lack of evidence. His minor nephew is being tried in a juvenile court. Another three former police officers, Anand Dutta, Surinder Kumar and Tilak Raj, were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for the destruction of crucial evidence. Though the investigation stated that Sanjhi did not rape the girl, he was convicted for being the “mastermind” of the entire incident. The investigation concluded that the abduction of the girl was planned to dislodge the Muslim Bakarwals from the largely Hindu-populated area of Kathua.
The locals told me that a devisthan is not a temple but an ancestral sacred space only for the Jangotra Brahmins of Rasana. Many villages across the region have similar devisthans, apart from conventional Hindu temples. These devisthans are not just varna-specific but also jati-specific. For instance, the Mahajan caste from the Kayastha varna has its own devisthan, as does the Dogra caste from the Rajput varna. Each caste also has its own kuldevta, as well as specific rituals, holy days and beliefs. A priest from Jammu informed me that Kaliveer is the kuldevta of 12 such castes.
The Jangotras in Rasana prefer identifying Kaliveer as “Kale Ghode Wala Baba”—the deity who rides a black horse. They told me the deity is known for his rage and demands complete respect. As his servants, they cannot take his name.
There are no priests in these devisthans. The locals instead believe that these deities appoint a man of their wish as their “chela” or “sevak,” who then serves as the servant and mouthpiece of the deity. Apart from performing duties similar to those of priests, chelas are also involved in faith-healing. Many villagers believe chelas can perform miracles and predict the future, and they are often consulted before marriages, births and deaths. It is through a chela that animal sacrifices are offered to deities after any wishes are fulfilled. Kaliveer’s chela is referred to as his kala ghoda, or black horse.
Sanjhi Ram was the chela of Kaliveer Devta. His 33-year-old daughter, Madhu Bala, told me that he had been performing this role for over twenty-five years. Kaliveer had been their kuldevta for generations, she said, but it was only her father and a distant relative who possessed these special powers. She told me he was the “chosen one.”
After Sanjhi Ram’s retirement as a village accountant, in 2017, he was fully dedicated to the devisthan. Madhu told me that he spent his days visiting the place in the mornings and evenings. He conducted all the rituals, from bathing the deity to changing its clothes, from lighting diyas to talking to devotees. Sanjhi would spend every Sunday—considered an auspicious day for worshipping Kaliveer—in the devisthan. He had the keys to the sacred hall. Of the four walls, three had metal doors and windows. During the trial, it was argued that other villagers also had keys to the doors. However, the prosecution team told me that no one could produce even a single duplicate key as evidence.
When I visited the devisthan one morning, it was locked and no one was around. It was located at one end of a plot of barren land, surrounded by a thick forest. A small pathway from the devisthan led directly through the forest to Sanjhi Ram’s house. The girl’s body had been found in the middle of that pathway. The walls of the devisthan had been freshly whitewashed. “Jai Baba Kaliveer” was written prominently on them in black ink.
I returned to the devisthan that evening. This time, it was open. There were two women in the hall, but both denied knowing anything about the rape case. The hall was mostly empty. On one end, there was a raised platform with metal idols of five deities. Madhu told me that, apart from Kaliveer, the Devisthan hosted four more deities: Mal Mata, Raja Mandali, Naag Devta and Peer Baba. She said that, as Kaliveer’s chela, Sanjhi Ram was bound to serve the other deities too.
According to multiple folk tales, Kaliveer is considered one of the cleverest ministers of Mandali, a king believed to be the ruler of Jammu in the Kali Yuga. Both are often worshipped together. The folk tales narrate how Kaliveer convinced Mandali to wage war on Muslims, as they had abducted the Kapila cow from Jammu.
A certain section of Jammu society invokes Kaliveer with every political development, often while calling for revenge against Mufti and the PDP. When, in August 2019, the Modi government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution and so stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood, thus dissolving the country’s only Muslim-majority state, many tweets credited Kaliveer. Ankur Sharma, the president of IkkJutt Jammu, a newly formed Hindu-nationalist group, was the lead counsel representing Sanjhi Ram and others. He regularly visits the devisthan to pay his respects to Kaliveer. For the past two years, he has been organising the Lohri Bhandara in Rasana.
Bakarwals and Brahmins have always had an acrimonious relationship. Trishla Devi, the mother of Pravesh Jangotra, one of the convicts, told me Bakarwals used to steal coins that had been offered to the deities in the devisthan and often washed their clothes in the water of a handpump there. Many locals believed that Bakarwals insulted the deities by their presence near the devisthan, which they considered a place only for purebred Brahmins. If any Dalit came to worship there, Brahmins left the compound. Muslims were considered of even lower status. The brother of the girl told me that Bakarwals eventually stopped going near the devisthan fearing fights, especially because Sanjhi Ram was very touchy about it.
Madhu told me that the spirit of Kaliveer used to possess Sanjhi Ram’s body. Through Sanjhi, Kaliveer used to talk to his followers to convey his decisions. The spirit entered Sanjhi’s body whenever any man from the “Jogi Biradari” played karka—the holy folk songs of the deity—on the dhol, she said. Jogis are Dogra Rajputs considered to be descendants of Shiva. Rajkumar Jogi, a traditional Nath Jogi based in Jammu, told me that Jogis have the power to summon gods into the body of the chela. The process is called chonki.
First, the chela readies the deity. Then, he takes his position in the devisthan. He calls each deity one by one and signals for the Jogi to start the karka. As the Jogi starts beating the dhol, the body of the chela starts shaking. The louder the noise, the more reactive the body gets. After some time, the chela signals to the Jogi to stop. At that time, through the body of the chela, Kaliveer starts speaking. First, he gives his regards to the 330 million Hindu deities. Then he asks the reason for summoning him. That is when people talk to him. Most often, Kaliveer demands a sacrifice from his followers. Usually, people offer Kaliveer a goat. Rajkumar told me that, in the past, Kaliveer had demanded the sacrifice of the devotee’s eldest child.
Another chela of Kaliveer, from a village in Jammu, told me that, during the process of sacrifice, the goat is kept in front of Kaliveer in the devisthan until it starts to shiver. “If it does not shiver, that means Kaliveer will not accept the sacrifice,” he said. “That is why some people keep the goat in the devisthan for hours,” he said. This process is called “bijna” in Jammu.
Madhu told me that Jangotra Brahmins celebrate Lohri and Makar Sankranti as the prime festivals of Kaliveer. Makar Sankranti is celebrated a day after Lohri. Both festivals are important to the villagers. Sanjhi Ram would perform a chonki, while a bhandara—feast—would be organised on the Sunday closest to Lohri.
It is not certain whether the 2018 bhandara was held. Sanjhi Ram’s family claims that he hosted it, and his lawyers raised it as a point of defence during the trial. If a large bhandara was hosted, they asked, how could the girl have been hidden in the devisthan? However, according to the prosecutors, their witness could not produce any bills or photographs as evidence.
When I talked to the officials of the crime branch who investigated the case, they neither accepted nor denied claims that the accused might have brutalised the girl as part of rituals. None of them agreed to speak on the record, fearing consequences from the office of the lieutenant governor of what is now the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which answers to the BJP-led central government. However, they told me that they did not investigate the possible connection to ritualistic practices because they felt it was not relevant to the investigation. A member of the investigation team, who did not want to be named, told me that most of the team’s officials were Muslims who neither understood these practices nor got involved when matters of faith came up.
During the investigators’ examination of the devisthan, none of the Muslim police officers entered the ancestral hall, the police official told me. Instead, he said, a Brahmin woman police officer was appointed to investigate the hall. She recovered multiple strands of hair from one corner of the devisthan, and forensic analysis revealed that one of these belonged to the victim. Police officers also told me that there was a lot of pressure on them. Even before they summoned any witness for cross-examination, there was a call from a senior politician.
The gruesome murder shocked the country’s conscience but, once again, did not spark a national conversation on the role rituals and superstitions play in fuelling bigotry and heinous acts. Perpetrators who are able to either demonise or dehumanise their victims as witches, sexual objects or sacrificial lambs in the name of faith makes everybody complicit in society’s degradation. At the heart of this is a desire to keep people and communities in their places. Seema Katara, who survived a brutal night of torture in Madhya Pradesh, was punished for displaying independence and bucking patriarchal norms. Rajni Yadav was drowned in the Ganges for daring to refuse sex to a godman. And the little Bakarwal girl in Kathua was raped and murdered by grown men for reasons we are yet to fully understand.