The Horror of Being the Target of a Witch Hunt in India
In many villages in rural India, the practice of witch-hunting continues today—despite local laws. Several women who were accused of witchcraft in the state of Rajasthan describe how their lives changed after being branded as witches.
Noji Regar is a widow who was branded a witch by her community. She's completely isolated from her village and her family. Images by Masuma Ahuja.
The attacks were all unexpected and senseless, though each came with an explanation. One woman says she was dragged out of her house and brutalized because a buffalo in her village had stopped giving milk; another suffered the same fate because a teenage girl in the village accused her of casting the evil eye. A third woman says her in-laws held her captive for weeks, denying her food and access to her family.
There are countless stories like these in rural India, where thousands of women have faced violence or been killed after being declared “witches,” according to government figures. Laws that forbid witch-hunting are relatively new, and experts caution that many cases in rural areas go unreported to police. Still, the country’s National Criminal Record Bureau reports that more than 2000 women were killed in India following allegations of witchcraft between 2005 and 2015.
Kesi Chadana, a quiet woman in her 40s who lives in a tiny village in the state of Rajasthan, was accused of witchcraft in 2014. She survived the attack, but it has left her permanently changed. “They didn’t kill me, but they didn’t leave me alive either,” she says, wiping away tears.
On a November afternoon Chadana returned to her home in the village, having just gotten back from the hospital in a nearby town where she’d watched her daughter give birth. Upon her arrival, she says, she found her fellow villagers waiting for her near her house; they had decided that she was a witch.
She says they first locked her family in their house and took their phones away, then they began torturing her. Her neighbors and relatives beat her and stripped her naked, she claims, and made her wear a garland of shoes, carry heavy stones on her head, and parade through the neighboring villages on a donkey. She says they were planning to burn her at a stake later that evening, until the police caught wind of what was happening; according to reports in local press and social workers, over 30 people were arrested and later sentenced to jail terms for participating in the attack.
Rajasthan passed a law banning witch-hunting in 2015. Despite similar new laws in several states, the practice of witch-hunting, which is rooted in superstition, continues in villages across the state. In the last two years alone, more than a hundred women in Rajasthan have been accused of witchcraft. I spoke to seven of them; they all told me that their lives had changed profoundly since they were first branded witches. They all described facing violence that stretched on for hours or days. After these ordeals, they told me, they were ostracized in their communities, sometimes with little hope for recourse. Even in the cases where police intervened and arrested the attackers, life for these women and their families has remained a struggle.
Noji Regan, a widow in her 60s who lives alone and owns about two acres of land, says she was branded a witch by a few men in her village in July 2014. She says they came for her wielding swords, dragged her by her hair, and beat her with sticks as thick as her legs. The reason they gave her: One of the men’s buffalos had stopped giving milk, and they insisted she had cast an evil eye on the animal. The men were later arrested for branding her a witch and attacking her, according to local media reports and social workers who followed her case, but the fallout from the accusation remains. Today, she remains isolated in the community she’s lived in for her entire life, surviving off her own land.
There are a few different reasons for witch hunts, according to women’s rights advocates. Regan’s case is instructive: She was particularly vulnerable because of her age and marital status. “Mostly you see that the so-called lower-caste are mostly targeted,” says Bhanwar Meghwanshi, an activist in Rajasthan who works with women who have been branded witches. “The other instance is women who are alone, like widows. If they have land or houses, and people are eyeing this land, people sometimes do it to grab this land.”
In many instances, bhopas, local “quacks”—witch doctors or alternative healers of sorts—can also play a role. “Bhopas have a very instrumental role in branding a woman a witch. The role of a bhopa is that any person in the village — if a goat is sick, a cow isn’t giving milk, a child is sick, there’s any problem in the family, even say if the husband and wife are having problems and want to get divorced, really anything — they go and ask the bhopa. They tell them what’s happening, and ask for advice,” says Tara Ahluwalia, a local activist working with victims of witch-hunting.
“They didn’t kill me, but they didn’t leave me alive either."
Kishni Kharwad, a shy young woman, says she was targeted by her local bhopa about two years ago. She was constantly coming down with a fever, she says. When she and her husband visited the local bhopa, he told them this wasn’t the kind of illness that medical doctors could fix. Instead, he offered solutions like sacrificing a goat, and charged them fees for his advice. Kharwad would dutifully do what he said, she tells Broadly, but the sickness would always come back, and so she would constantly return to him for help.
On her last visit with the bhopa, she recalls, he came to her house, declared her a witch, and began beating her. Kishni ended up in the hospital, and the bhopa who targeted her was arrested, according to reports. She and her husband eventually moved to a nearby city, rather than face ostracization in their home village.
Kavita, a 22-year-old woman whose last name we’re withholding in order to protect her identity, says her husband and her in-laws targeted her about two-and-a-half years ago. “I got married, and for a month they took care of me properly. And then I don’t know what happened—they started hitting me,” she says.
She says they told their neighbors she was a witch. What followed was a harrowing, weeks-long experience. According to Kavita, her husband and his family beat her with a pipe and didn’t give her food, making her eat coal and drink their urine. Kavita was kept locked in the house, she says, and her mother was banned from seeing her. Eventually, her in-laws kicked her out of the house.
“Sometimes, there are women who are branded witches who stop eating and drinking and they think… I don’t want to eat or drink, it’s better if i just want to die,” says Meghwanshi, the activist.
This was the case for Ramkanya Devi, a midwife in her 70s, who lives in a house down the street from the local school with her husband, her sons and daughters-in-law, and her many grandchildren. About five months ago, she recounts, a teenage girl who was friends with her granddaughter stood outside the school and wailed that Devi was a witch who had cast an evil eye upon her. “I delivered her, I birthed all the children in this village,” she says. “The children who I delivered, who are like my own grandchildren, how could they call me a witch?”
The girl’s family attacked Devi’s husband and gave her sons an ultimatum: send Devi away or lock her up. They didn’t want to see her face in the village. For the next three weeks, Devi’s sons imprisoned her in a small, windowless room, she claims.
“I was thinking about dying,” she says. “My daughters-in-law used to give me tea and talk to me, but I stopped eating slowly. I just stopped eating.”
Ahluwalia, who has worked on about 90 cases of witch-hunting since 1986, says the impact of witch branding often extends beyond the immediate physical violence to longer term social isolation. “If we call a woman a witch once… you just become a living corpse, you’re nothing more than that,” she says. “People end all social contact with you. Throughout the day, people make you feel like you aren’t a respected member of society, that you’re a witch. Women will hide their children when you walk by; pregnant women will cover their bellies when they see you.”
Regan, the widow accused of witchcraft, says that even her children have shunned her. She has a stepson and a daughter who don’t visit her, she laments—her daughter fears that her own children will not be able to get married if she continues to associate with her mother.
Often, this social isolation extends beyond just the woman to her entire family. Chadana has felt this acutely: Even though many men in her village were arrested and imprisoned for witch-hunting, she continues to feel the impact of being branded a witch. In her small village, which has about 50 houses, not a single person will speak to her or her family. She says she is seen not only as a witch, but as the reason all the men were locked up.
“Before this happened, everyone used to come to me for help with signing documents, for writing things. Now, nobody talks to us,” says her daughter Leela, who’s in the 10th grade and the only girl in the village with a high school education. One of Chadana’s son’s engagement was broken off, and both of her daughters were cast out by their husbands’ families, forced to care for their young children alone. Both now live with her. Nobody wanted to be associated with a witch’s family, she explains.
“Quite often, people leave the village and go settle in another village. And in other situations, they are forced out of the village. They are threatened: that if you don’t leave the village, your mother, wife, daughter, whoever it is, will be burned. You will face consequences,” says Meghwanshi.
But Chadana refuses to leave behind her land, a source of her family’s livelihood. So she continues to live in a village where nobody talks to her, and her neighbors wanted to burn her to death.
Still afraid to show her face in the village, she keeps her head covered with a veil. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t make mistakes,” she insists plaintively, her voice cracking. “What did I do wrong? Why did this happen?”