In this chapter, we give some examples from our case studies to illustrate the different factors leading to witch accusations and persecutions. The factors identified in the witch hunts are the following: seizing land and other property from women; jealousy; asking for dues; assertion of independence and initiative by women; resisting sexual predation; unconventional religious practices; and causing illness and misfortune. Causing illness or misfortune is a common factor in all accusations. However, there are some cases where discussion did not disclose any other factor, and such cases have been included in the category of the main charges against a woman, which were seen as the determining factor for her being labelled a witch.
In our discussions with the survivors, there was a readiness on their part to discuss these above-listed factors. Since the survivors knew that they were not witches, in the sense of having and using supernatural powers, even if they too believed in the existence of witches, they were very keen to look to these other factors that they think might have led to the witch accusations. Of course, if you do not ask the question, you will not get an answer.
In discussing these factors, other than the belief in harm caused by alleged witches, there is an element of reflexivity involved in the process. There, however, was an attempt to reduce this by discussing the case and then noting where it fitted in the categories of other factors, whether jealousy or so on. It is not as though the survivors were provided with a list and asked to choose from among the factors listed. After discussions with the concerned woman or man, we analysed a case and marked it as belonging to one or another category or belonging to more than one category. In fact, even this list of categories was derived from a day-long discussion with 13 survivors. The authors did not have the category of different religious practices as a factor in witch accusations. This came out of that day's discussion, when it was mentioned by one of the women alleged to be a witch.
This chapter lays out the analytical framework that has helped us understand witch hunts. In particular, we elaborate on the concept of articulation and the way we have used and demonstrated it in this book.
We have used three variables to explain witch hunts: a culture of witchcraft beliefs; gender struggles leading to the creation and re-creation of patriarchy; and structural or major socio-economic transformations, including the formation of private property and of the capitalist market economy. The reference is made to ‘structural or major socio-economic transformations’ in which the creation or re-creation of patriarchy is itself a socio-economic transformation. Witch hunts are the dependent variable, while culture, gender struggles, and structural transformations are the independent variables. So, how do these three independent variables or factors fit together to create the historical experience of witch hunts?
The explanatory scheme is not monocausal; it is multicausal. This can lead to over‐determination, in the sense that two factors may reinforce each other. For instance, gender struggles and other structural transformations may work together to determine women as witches in early modern Europe. At the same time, structural transformations may also explain why men were witches in some instances.
The factor of a culture of witchcraft beliefs, or beliefs in humans acquiring supernatural powers with which they can cause harm to others, has a different status from the other two factors. It is a necessary condition, without which witch hunts cannot take place. Evidence of this proposition is seen in Ronald Hutton's statement that Siberia is the one large cultural region that was without witches (Hutton 2017: 11). There are shamans, who mediate with the supernatural world, but they are benevolent, not malevolent. The Siberian people did not have witch hunts (however, now things may be different, as we noticed in some recent reports). Also, there is some evidence that the Celtic peoples (of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) had very few witch trials (Hutton 2017: 243). Scotland was the site of a furious witch hunt, as well studied by Christina Larner (1981). But the area of the Scottish witch hunt was on the border with England, and thus subject to the influence of English witch beliefs. However, in upland Scotland the Celtic culture seems to have held sway.
Widespread witchcraft beliefs are a precondition for the occurrence of witch hunts. But their manifestation in the form of witch hunts occurs in certain social conditions. The explanatory variables that we listed earlier are (a) a culture of belief in the existence of persons, women, or men who can cause harm through supernatural powers, (b) attempts to define, redefine, or oppose patriarchal norms and roles, and (c) overall structural transformation or socio-economic changes of a major kind in which old norms are replaced or sought to be replaced by new norms. These explanatory variables can be used to understand both the predominance of women in early modern Europe as witch accused, 80 per cent of the total, and also the existence of 20 per cent, a significant number, of men as witch accused (Larner 1981).
The belief that women are witches is often attributed to misogyny and a reflection of binary thinking (Rowlands 2013), where the stereotype is that women are evil and cause harm. The binary thinking, however, goes back to the Christian belief of the original man, Adam, as good and the original woman, Eve, who herself is the origin of evil in human society (Noddings 1989). This binary thinking, in turn, creates the stereotype of the witch as woman. The witch acquires supernatural powers, which are used for evil, not from God but from Satan. In addition, Christian theology also portrays women as weak and susceptible to sexual advances and possession by the devil (Clark, in Rowlands 2013).
Christian theology and state action are reinforced by the ordinary belief in ‘magic as an inherent quality of human beings, believing that magical powers could be intensified by invoking supernatural spirits of some demonic or divine aspect’ (Hagen 2013). But women's independent access to the supernatural was seen theologically in negative terms, a result not of communion with God but of possession by Satan (Whitney 1995). Together, the combination of theology and ordinary belief produced the witch as a woman.
Was it women hunting?
Despite the general acknowledgement that most persons accused of being witches were women, there has been considerable debate on the connection between women and witches in the context of the witch hunts in early modern Europe. The debate is not about facts, since the figure of 80 per cent of those accused of being women is generally accepted.
The subject of this book is the persecution of witches—of persons supposed to have supernatural powers, which they use to cause harm to other humans. Accusations leading to persecutions may be widespread or restricted; in either case, they are public performances, usually involving large numbers of people, including the accused, the accusers, those said to be able to identity witches, and many other members of the concerned communities.
The present book follows earlier work by the authors, 30 years ago, on witch hunts in the state of Jharkhand, India (Kelkar and Nathan 1991), and an analysis of the demonization of women in Yunnan, China, and Southeast Asia (Nathan, Kelkar, and Yu 1998). Both these works situated witch hunts in the context of internal gender struggles within indigenous societies. In 2016, we extended the analysis to encompass the relationship between witch hunts and the development of a modern capitalist economy, and the resultant increased inequalities and dispossessions in India (Nathan, Kelkar, and Satija, 2016).
Our analysis in this book builds on and extends this body of work, aided by some 110 case studies of witch persecution gathered by us and a group of field researchers—noted as contributors on the book's title page—between 2014 and 2016 in the five Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Telangana. In addition, we build our analysis on a review of literature, court judgments, police records, interviews with police and administrative officials, and relevant civil society organizations. We also included legal analysts in our team to review and analyse court cases related to women (and men) persecuted by their communities as witches. Our study teams included both women and men who have engaged in research and praxis opposing the persecution of women as witches in their communities.
One of the two authors (Dev Nathan) has also spent much time as an activist in the trade union movement in the mineral–industrial belt of Jharkhand and central India. This was not fieldwork on this subject, but it immensely contributed to gaining an understanding of indigenous peoples’ movements and their development issues. The other author (Govind Kelkar) has been part of the feminist movement in India, including that in Jharkhand and other indigenous societies in northeast India.
Our attempt in this chapter is to bring history into the understanding of the creation of patriarchal relations among indigenous peoples. Comaroff and Comaroff (1999: xviii) acknowledge the prior or pre-modern existence of witch persecutions but do not give it any historical importance. From these materials, however, we would like to understand the character of witch struggles and their relation with patriarchal structures in indigenous societies. This, of course, does not mean that the indigenous peoples were not in contact with the larger religio-cultural societies around them, nor that their economies were self-contained without any trading relations with statist and other communities around them. The region of central India, including Jharkhand, supplied elephants that were used for both war and ceremonial purposes by more complex societies around them (K. S. Singh 1987). In the nineteenth century, at the time of the Munda revolt led by Birsa Munda, the Mundas as well as other indigenous peoples of central India were suppliers of lac to the British Empire.
The indigenous peoples were not isolated from the dominant sociocultural systems in the subcontinent, even to the extent that some of these communities lost their own original language. Verrier Elwin pointed out that the Baigas of Chhattisgarh, India, had lost all traces of their Austro-Asiatic language and spoke the languages of their neighbours (Elwin 1991). As Aloka Parasher points out in general about the indigenous societies in India in the period up to 600 CE, ‘those who were called the mlechha [the barbarian or indigenous peoples] groups lived in relative, but not absolute isolation from the dominant culture of the Indian sub-continent’ (Parasher 1991). So too the indigenous peoples of Yunnan and the Chinese northwest who to the Han Chinese were either ‘black barbarians’ or ‘white barbarians’, but were in contact with.
What difference does the acknowledgement of contact between indigenous peoples and the dominant cultures around them make to the analysis of witch hunts? For one, it points to the possibility of some ideas about evil humans having been introduced from outside the indigenous culture, and not just a result of internal changes. With regard to the Muria of central India, Verrier Elwin pointed out that in the original Muria tradition, the enemy of mankind is usually a man and that the belief in female witches was a later introduction from Hindu beliefs (Elwin 1991; Sundar 2001).
In this chapter we take up the role of witch hunts in indigenous, pre-state, and early state societies in the creation of patriarchy. There are different trajectories in the creation of patriarchy. In one there is an exclusion of women from the higher, ritual sphere of knowledge; this exclusion is sustained through persecuting women as witches for any attempt to break the taboo. In another trajectory the very knowledge that women possessed of the ritual sphere is itself transformed from having been beneficial to society to being the source of evil.
In the manner of institutional economics, patriarchy is an institution through which resource rights and control are allocated among the genders within a household. Furthermore, gender struggles are social processes of bargaining over institutions (Folbre 2006). Witch hunts then can be identified as an extreme form of gender struggle through which, in some indigenous societies, men established their domination over the various sites of the society, polity, and economy.
The creation of patriarchy was the outcome of a long historical process. In Europe, according to Gerda Lerner (1986), it took about 2,500 years for patriarchy to be established. There are two major analyses of the type of women's labour that was controlled in this process. Lerner, following Claude Meillassoux and Peter Aaby, identifies women's reproductive labour as being the first labour to be appropriated: ‘Thus, the first appropriation of private property consists of the appropriation of women as reproducers’ (1986: 52, emphasis in original) and ‘the product of the commodification of women—bride-price, sale price and children—was appropriated by men. It may very well represent the first accumulation of private property’ (1986: 213).
Lerner's analysis follows that of Friedrich Engels (1972) who understood women as ‘producers of life’ and men as virtually producers of everything else. He thought that men both hunted and gathered in hunter-gatherer or forager societies. Women largely foraged the plant foods that were the dominant sources of subsistence in tropical climates (Lee and Daly 1999b: 8). Not only did women gather and only, in a limited way, participate in hunting, as attested by cave paintings (for example, the Neolithic site at Burzahom in Kashmir which shows a woman and a man together hunting a big animal with a spear, as also accounts of the Greek epics and India's Arthashastra), with images of women as hunters and soldiers (Singh 2001).
This chapter connects witch hunts with the emerging capitalist economy. In this chapter we first take up the connections of indigenous peoples and peasants in developing economies with the market economy. This is followed by an analysis of how witch persecutions play out within the context of struggles over the change from subsistence to accumulative economies. At different points we make comparisons with situations in early modern Europe to show where similar processes of change and witch persecutions were taking place. Looking at witch persecutions in contemporary indigenous and peasant societies and comparing them with witch hunts in early modern Europe brings out one important factor in common between these contexts—they are both situations of structural change and intense conflict. There are both those who opposed the changes from subsistence to accumulative economies and those who were in favour of such change. In this context, witch persecutions and hunting can take on the shape of both promoting accumulation or opposing accumulation. There are different moral economies, or even cultures, in conflict over here, and witch persecutions can play both brutal levelling and accumulating roles.
Indigenous societies and connection with capitalist economy
The importance of seeing witches and witch persecution in the context of the developing capitalist economy is now a common theme in discussions of the witch question, particularly after the collections edited by Jean and John Comaroff (1993b), Peter Geschiere's book The Modernity of Witchraft (1997), and then Henrietta Moore and Todd Sanders (2001). We summarize below our understanding of these connection across Africa, Latin America, other parts of Asia, and the Pacific, the last being represented by Papua New Guinea.
The relations of the indigenous peoples of central India with the state and market have changed over time. Markets have come to play an increasingly important role even in acquiring the necessities of daily life. Important is the spread of the ideology of accumulated development. This signalled a transition from Ranajit Guha's ‘dominance without hegemony’ to ‘dominance through hegemony’ (Guha 1997) of the ideas of market-based development, or capitalist development. But there need not be just one type of institutional set-up in a capitalist economy, as the varieties of capitalism (Hall and Soskice 2001) or the alternative modernities literature (Gaonkar 2001; Appadurai 2001) both argue.
In the Introduction, we defined a witch as a person who is perceived to cause harm by supernatural, mystical means. For such beliefs to result in witch hunts, we need three conditions: first, the belief that there are human beings who cause harm to others; second, the idea that such harm can be caused by those who have or acquire supernatural means and who can use these supernatural means; and, third, that there is collective/community acceptance of action against witches, that is, persecution of witches or witch hunts. In the latter part of the book, we will go through these three conditions and see how they are manifested in indigenous societies in India, in Africa, and also in early modern Europe.
The view of witchcraft as being the social explanation for misfortune or suffering can be looked into at various levels. One can look at witchcraft beliefs as an epistemology, a way through which the world is known. We also bring the human rights issue into the discussion of witch persecutions.
Causing harm through supernatural means
E. E. Evans-Pritchard succinctly posed the question regarding what we would call an accident of a crumbling wall falling on a particular person, ‘Why now? Why me?’ (1935, 1976: 25). As he pointed out, the answer in finding a witch who had used magic to cause harm does not rule out real, that is, physical or biological, causes; rather, it ‘is superimposed on them, and gives to social events their moral value’ (1976: 25). The entire exercise of attributing misfortune to witches was labelled as the beliefs of a ‘primitive’ type of mind existing in the cosmology of supposed ‘pre-rational’ people (J. Green 1977: 197). Obviously, we now reject the characterization of a primitive, pre-rational mind, but a whole stream of thought distinguished such supposedly pre-rational beliefs from those of rational, modern peoples.
There, however, is an important point in which the moderns can learn from indigenous beliefs. This is in the rejection of a fetishism that substitutes things for people and does not see the role of the relations between people in causing what seem to be accidents. For instance, industrial accidents are seen if not as the hand of a wrathful god, then as the inevitable result of industrial processes.
In this chapter we look in more detail at the manner in which witch accusations were linked with the development policy of capitalist systems in some countries. Witch hunting could be governmental development or judicial policy. Some of them were market-based developments in rural areas. Others were new forms of witch accusations that appeared with urbanization, while new metaphors were developed for large-scale capitalist enterprises in mines and plantations. The geographic areas covered are countries in Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific.
Witch hunts in anti-colonial uprisings in Africa
European colonial states in Africa generally made illegal the persecution of alleged witches. The laws did not make beliefs in witchcraft illegal but made actions based on those beliefs illegal (Redding 2019: 5–6). Colonial states were then seen as the protectors of witches. In opposition to this, during some anti-colonial movements, ‘cleansing’ of the concerned African societies from witchcraft practices was part of these movements. The 1904–6 Maji Maji uprising in Tanzania included witch hunts (Larson 2014 and Redding 2019). In Kenya, faced with the challenge of movements based on ‘spiritual oaths’, the colonial state too utilized the witchcraft complex, recruiting witch finders in Kenya to find those who had taken the Mau Mau oath (Luongo 2006). We have not gone into the pre-colonial witch history in South Africa, as in the Zulu kingdom, where there was a classic orientalist creation of a non-existent witch massacre (Pels 1998). Nevertheless, the contemporary history of witch hunts in South Africa does make it predominantly a matter of women as supposed witches, a history that could well go back into the pre-colonial period.
The end of colonialism from the 1950s provided an opportunity for some of the newly independent African states to take up anti-witchcraft programmes. Cyprian Fisiy and Peter Geschiere report a Cameroonian friend saying,
But with decolonization all this is going to change. You white people think witchcraft does not exist. But now Africans hold the positions of authority and they know witchcraft is all too real here. Soon the law will be changed, so that judges will be able to deal with witches. (1990: 136)
Not all African countries have changed the colonial laws, which make anti-witch actions a crime. South Africa, for instance, still has the colonial era law.
In this chapter and the next, we concentrate on examples from our case studies to illustrate both the types of witch persecutions and successful or failed attempts to survive those attacks. Most often, the accounts are as told by the survivors themselves or, in some cases of murder of the accused witch, by a surviving family member. In the literature, other than in reports by human rights organization, little attention is paid to the brutal, demeaning, and murderous ways in which witch persecutions are carried out. These two chapters aim to correct this imbalance and bring the violence of witch hunts into scholarly discussions.
Witch violence involves denouncing women as witches, mostly after a witch finder (called ojha in some parts of central India) identifies a woman as a witch. The woman who is identified as a witch is subject to varying forms of torture and humiliation such as beatings, burning of body parts, being forced to drink urine and eat human excrement, rape, insertion of sharp metallic or wooden objects in her vagina, cutting of body parts such as nose and fingers, pulling out teeth and hair, and even killing by beheading. In most cases, such violence is committed in the presence of the village community, including community elders. It is a public event, such as that seen in the cover photograph of a recent (1998) witch hunting ritual in Kondagaon in the state of Chhattisgarh.
The incidence of witch killings
Since 2001, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has been recording witch accusations as the motive for murder. According to its data (see Table 3.1), a total of 2,468 murders were committed between 2001 and 2016, where witch accusation and persecution were recorded as the motive. In 2016, 134 persons were killed for supposedly practising witchcraft and accused of causing harm to an individual, a family, or a community.
It is to be noted that the NCRB data are likely to be an underestimate of the situation. Instances of witch killing could well be listed under other categories, such as property disputes or personal vendettas. Nevertheless, the numbers of witch-related killings are non-trivial. The period 2001–12 averaged 168 witch murders nationwide per year, with a range from 114 murders in 2004 to 242 murders in 2011.
How do we deal with witch hunts and the related witchcraft beliefs that underlie them? We deal with it as a contemporary problem, drawing lessons from the end of the witch hunts in early modern Europe. Whether in India or Africa, the colonizers passed laws to punish witch persecutions. Their actions led to the perception that the colonizers were supporters of witches. When the indigenous peoples in central India or African peasants rebelled against colonial rule, their insurgencies were accompanied by internal cleansings of supposed witches. This was so among the Santhal and Munda in India, as also the Maji Maji uprising in Tanzania. It also occurred in the run-up to the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Subsequently, some of the newly independent nations formulated official policies of dealing with witchcraft with state-sponsored witch hunts. Benin was the most notable of these examples. Tanzania, Cameroon, South Africa, and other countries also formulated policies to end witchcraft. In Cameroon and Malawi the judiciary played an important role in trying those accused of witchcraft. In South Africa cadres of the new ruling party, in league with traditional witch finders, carried out witch hunts in the Northern Province.
In India the situation was different, as the indigenous peoples were part of the federal Indian legal system. But when the provincial state of Jharkhand, dominated by the indigenous people, was set up, there was more attention given to the reported increase in witch hunts. A series of laws against witch persecutions and even against witch accusations were enacted by Jharkhand and other concerned states in India: Bihar, Rajasthan, and Odisha.
There have been three types of approaches to dealing with witch hunts. The first is to deem it a criminal act and legally deal with it accordingly. Whether explicitly or not, the implication is that there is no such thing as witchcraft. The second is to make the oppression of supposed witches legal, whether legal in codified terms or customary in community terms. For example, the European witch hunt was of the second type, sanctioning the killing of socially notified witches. This approach assumes that there are witches who utilize their supernatural powers to harm others.
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