As per the latest available data of National Crime Records Bureau, 590 people, mostly women, were killed on allegations of practicing witchcraft between 2001 and 2020
Tukutoli, a tribal hamlet of around two dozen households, located on the margins of Karondajor village panchayat in Gumla district, resembles any other tribal settlement in the remote corners of Jharkhand. However, Tukutoli bears a stark difference: at present one can hardly find any woman here.
Reason: 19 women from Tukutoli are currently in jail. On August 4, these women — 30 to 70-year-olds — were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for beating two women from the same neighbourhood to death for allegedly practicing witchcraft. The hamlet wore an eerie silence on Saturday afternoon when this correspondent reached the locality, which falls under the Bharno police station limits in Gumla district.
While it was hard to find women in the locality, the men were almost speechless when asked about the conviction or about the incident back from June 11, 2013 that led to their jail term nine years later. Those killed and few of those convicted are closely related.
“This should not have happened – neither the conviction, nor the lynching. We don’t know how to come out of this crisis,” said Joginder Nag, a visibly shaken 25-year-old from the village. Nag, who works at a nearby stone chips crushing plant, said three women from his family are in prison, including his mother Karia Devi and two elder sisters-in-law Mangri Devi and Chintamani Devi.
For the uninitiated, two women – Brizania Indiwar and Ignesia Indiwar – were lynched to death by a group of women at the local Akhra (a dedicated place in village for social gatherings) under a Neem tree in Tukutoli on the morning of June 11, 2013. The two deceased were accused of allegedly practicing witchcraft that led to the death of Augustin Indiwar, a 40-year-old man who lived barely few metres from the Akhra, about a month before the lynching incident.
As the news of the lynching spread, fellow villagers assembled and rushed the two injured to a government hospital in Sisai. While one woman was declared brought dead, the other died during treatment. A complaint was filed with the Bharno police station, leading to the arrest of the 19 women within a day after the incident.
Edwin Indiwar, 22, is the eldest of the five children of the deceased Ignesia Indiwar. Himself a minor when his mother was killed, Edwin said, “I don’t remember anything. But it’s a fact that she was killed. Irrespective of whatever happened that day, it has now destroyed the entire village.” Edwin, who is now married and is a father to a four-month-old girl, lives along with his father, three brothers and one school-going sister. He works in the fields and doubles-up as a driver of earth movers at the nearby stone crusher.
A fellow villager not willing to be named said the incident happened on the spur of the moment. “The women had gathered for their frequent Mahila Mandal (women committee) meetings. It was a Sunday, so many men had gone to the church and others in the fields. The Mahila Mandal would often meet to help each other. Many a times, they would contribute ₹5 or ₹10 per person to help each other. But no one had any idea that things would go bad that day. By the time others rushed back, the two women were almost dead,” said the villager, claiming many of those convicted were mere onlookers of the crime.
Christina Indiwar, mother of Augustin, whose sudden death triggered the chain of events, is also among the 19. Alexis Indiwar, father of Augustin, said he was in his fields when the incident occurred. However, he refused to say anything about his wife’s role in the incident.
Teresa Indiwar, Augustin’s widow, too refused to speak on the issue. However, to a specific question if she actually thinks she lost her husband due to witchcraft, she denied.
Additional public prosecutor Md. Jawed Husain said while they are yet to get a certified copy of the verdict, the court relied on the facts of the case which were corroborated by the witnesses’ accounts. The accused women were convicted under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, besides sections 3&4 of the Prevention of Witch Practices Act, 2001, Hussain said.
“The police had filed a detailed charge sheet in the case. There were statements from eye witnesses including family members of the deceased. The prosecution also produced these witnesses at the trial stage during which they identified the accused. The defence could not prove the case otherwise,” Hussain added.
Those convicted have 90 days to challenge the verdict in a higher court. Nag said the entire village is working together to somehow reach a compromise and chalk out a mutually acceptable way out.
“We are consulting lawyers to challenge the conviction. We know things have become cumbersome due to the legal compulsions. There has been no tension in the village after that incident. We wish to find a middle path and get these women acquitted. It’s not only about my family. Women from more than half of the around-two-dozen households in our neighbourhood are in jail,” Nag said.
Murder on suspicion of witchcraft, especially in tribal villages, has been a major issue in Jharkhand, with illiteracy being the primary reason behind superstition and related crimes. While the exact demographic details of the Tukutoli hamlet was not available, as per the 2011 census, Karondajor village has a total population of 1,561, out of which male population is 793 while female population is 768. The literacy rate of Karondajor village is 55.73%, of which 62.30% are males and 48.96% are females.
As per the latest available data of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 590 people, mostly women, were killed on allegations of practicing witchcraft between 2001 and 2020. However, an analysis of the NCRB data suggests the trend has declined in the past few years.
In the past two decades, Jharkhand registered 54 such murders in 2013, 52 in 2008 and 50 in 2007. Witchcraft-related killings started declining after 2014 when 47 people were murdered. The following years consistently saw a declining trend, with 32 deaths in 2015, 27 in 2016, 19 in 2017, 18 in 2018, and 15 each in 2019 and 2020.