Jharkhand’s dark truth

NE

They waited till her husband left the house in the evening to buy milk. Then, they came for her. When Birsi Orain's 11- and 9-year-olds started crying at the sight of their mother being dragged out of the house, the three men told them to lock themselves in. The three brothers then hacked their 48-year-old neighbour to death outside her house in Khakhoitoli, part of Gumla district's Dumbo village, in February this year.

"When I came home, her body was lying in a pool of blood. Nobody from the village had come to check on her. The children were still inside the house, crying," said Indo Oraon, Birsi's husband.

Indo would never say why his wife was killed, but his statement, recorded at the Bharno police station, reveals how the village punished his wife to make an example out of him. Birsi's crime was that she was the wife of an alleged black-magic practitioner. She is now a statistic in police files, logged under the head 'Witch Deaths' alongside 64 others in Jharkhand over the last two years.

From the beginning of 2011 to August this year, Gumla district alone saw 18 murders booked under the 2001 Jharkhand Prevention of Witch Practices Act. More than the underlying reasons for the murders, it is their gruesome nature that grabs attention. There are documented instances of victims being forced to eat human excreta and bodies being badly mutilated. "The villagers are scared that the spirits would come back to haunt them. Once, we had to cremate some bodies after a murder in a Ranchi village. They wouldn't let us bury them," said Abhay Kumar Bhagat of the Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA), an NGO that has been working to eradicate harassment of people branded as black-magic practitioners. According to ASHA, which works with its local partners to document these cases, 574 people have been killed since 2001 in Jharkhand in cases related to black magic. The number of people killed during the previous decade in the 11 worst-affected districts, then in united Bihar and among the most backward in the state, is 522.

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