The dark side of India, where a witch-doctor's word means death

A lethal superstition is still claiming lives in former colonial tea plantations. Justin Huggler reports

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:43

The decision was made in the hot jungle night: Bhobesh Pahan and his two adult sons, Nirmal and Bimal, must die. Two weeks ago, the villagers of Poaltore, near the border with Bangladesh, had a meeting to decide what to do about the spate of illness gripping the village. A month before, a two-year-old, Sumon Pahan, no relation, had died of dysentery.

The decision was made in the hot jungle night: Bhobesh Pahan and his two adult sons, Nirmal and Bimal, must die. Two weeks ago, the villagers of Poaltore, near the border with Bangladesh, had a meeting to decide what to do about the spate of illness gripping the village. A month before, a two-year-old, Sumon Pahan, no relation, had died of dysentery.

Several villagers had viral fever. The village witch doctor said the cause was simple. The 65-year-old Bhobesh Pahan and his sons were witches, and had placed a curse on the villagers.

The jungle is never far in the villages here. The banana leaves and creepers are so thick you cannot see through them, even by daylight. There are spiders bigger than a man's hand, and some of the world's most poisonous snakes. At night, the villagers hear the sounds of leopards in the undergrowth.

The witch-doctor is said to have told the people the only way to rid themselves of the curse that was making them sick was to kill the witches. Bhobesh Pahan and his sons were condemned to death. The villagers agreed to kill them.

But, by a rare stroke of fortune, the Pahans were saved. The police were tipped off that there was about to be a witch-killing. The officers raided in force and rescued the men. Since then, there have been intensive police patrols in the village to prevent violence.

This incident, just two weeks ago, has cast renewed scrutiny on a darker side of India. The country is at the forefront of the cyber-revolution, the home of the world's biggest film industry, and a place where more and more business is being outsourced from Britain. But if India is changing fast, the more remote parts of the country are being left behind. Witch-killing is still an everyday part of life here. And not all the victims are as lucky as the Pahans.

They came for Sanseriya Oraow on a humid monsoon Sunday. Her neighbours dragged the middle-aged mother from her house and hammered a nail through her skull into her brain. Then, while she was still alive but in desperate pain, they sewed her up in a sack and dumped her in the nearby Murti river. Two days later, the police recovered her body.

The neighbours dragged four other middle-aged women from their homes that day. Each one suffered similar treatment, nails being hammered into her head, then, in her confusion and agony, being sewn into a sack and dumped in the river to die. This was the most notorious case of recent times. The local witch doctor had proclaimed the women witches after a run of illness among the people.

The place where it happened, Kilkott tea garden, seems an unlikely setting for such stuff of nightmares. This is a plantation set up by the British in colonial times, and is famed for the quality of its tea. On the mountainsides nearby are the great tea gardens of Darjeeling.

Kilkott is in stark contrast, surrounded by encroaching jungle. At the head planter's bungalow, the managers sit in wicker chairs on a vast, white verandah, gazing over manicured lawns and flower-beds that look straight out of Surrey, shielded by an elaborate iron screen from the monsoon deluge hammering into the garden. In a curious throwback to the colonial era, the managers of the tea estates dress in old-fashioned, tight English shorts that would be considered risqué in polite Indian society and seem ill-advised in a region ridden with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

In another notorious case, across the border in Bihar state in 2000, Manikul Gopai survived only because her family fought to the death to defend her after she was named as a witch by a medicine man and 10 men attacked her house. Her husband was hacked to death by the attackers as he tried to guard the door. Her son's arm was sliced open, but he managed to escape and get to the police to beg for help with his dying breath. They arrived armed to the teeth and just in time to rescue Ms Gopai. She had been seriously wounded with a sword- blow to the forehead.

Activists believe there may be up to 100 cases a year in India. In May, Dituben Singhod was hacked to death with a scythe and an axe by two men who accused her of being a witch and putting a spell on their niece, who had died of illness. That was in Vadodara, hundreds of miles from here.

But tea plantations founded by the British are the focal point of anti-witch activities. Between 1992 and 1998, the most recent period for which figures are available, 1,403 people were killed as alleged "witches" on the plantations. The reason, says Sundeep Mukherjee of the Indian Tea Association, also dates from colonial times. When the British planted tea in India, finding local labourers prepared to do what was seen as the menial work of laboriously picking leaves from the bushes by hand was difficult.

So the British imported workers called Adivasis, people still living in tribal society at the time in the jungles of neighbouring Bihar, and offered them a new life. Free accommodation on the tea estates, and a job not only for life, but for at least one child after their deaths. To this day, most of the workers on the estates are still Adivasis, and they still enjoy the deal made with the British.

Mr Mukherjee is a retired Indian army officer, immaculately dressed and with perfect English. At one point, he suggests a trip to a neighbouring village where a rogue elephant is on the rampage, "just for the adventure of it".

He says: "The witch-hunting [is caused by] ignorance, because they are so steeped in superstition. First, most of the tribals are illiterate. They are so engrossed in their superstition that, although qualified doctors are provided for them, it's so deep-seated that they still go to their witch-doctors."

The Indian Tea Association has been trying to stamp out the witch-hunting phenomenon by pushing for better education in the plantations, and for initiatives such as plays to encourage adults to go to real doctors instead of witch-doctors. Although some Adivasis still practise animism, most have become Hindus or Christians. But primitive beliefs are still deep.

Several types of poisonous snakes roam the jungle, including the deadly king cobra. Most Adivasis who are bitten still go to the witch-doctors, who are believed to be able to draw out the poison with a mixture of herbs applied to the skin.

The medicine men also try to cure other illnesses with mantras. When the witch-doctor fails to cure an illness, Mr Mukherjee says, he faces the wrath of the family, so he claims the sickness has been caused by a witch, and names one of the local labourers, usually a middle-aged or elderly woman, often unmarried or widowed. The only cure is believed to be to kill the witch.

In an effort to stamp this out, the plantations are required by law to provide free medical care for workers, and doctors and hospitals are all available nearby. But many workers still prefer the witch-doctors.

"The witch-doctors are themselves illiterate, and are pawns in the hands of rival groups, used to settle scores among them," Mr Mukherjee says. There have been cases in which one side in a land dispute is believed to have persuaded the witch-doctor to name his rival as a witch to get him off the scene.

"Pointing out of 'witches' is an offence under Indian law, but because of the lack of witnesses, the witch-doctors invariably go free," Mr Mukherjee adds.

The Kilkott case is still being investigated, and there is a court case pending. But many of the witnesses are said to have changed their police statements. On the plantation, no one will admit they witnessed the killing. Everyone claims they were somewhere else at the time. Even Sanseriya Oraow's two grown-up sons denied to The Independent that they had seen anything.

"I was in the fields when it happened," Somra Oraow says. "When I got back I saw my mother's dead body." But when questioned about the condition of the body, he quickly changed his story. "I didn't see the body," he says. "I didn't see anything." Something has the labourers of Kilkott deeply scared. But whether it is fear of the police, the witch-doctors, or reprisals from the guilty labourers, is impossible to tell.

On the plantations it is not hard to understand why the labourers still believe in witchcraft. The night is pitch-dark here, there is no light for miles, and if you find yourself out on the plantations after dark you are alone amid the impenetrable darkness and the incessant sound of the surrounding jungle. Anyone can start believing in witchcraft under such conditions.

The labourers live by the sun. They get up at dawn to start work, and got bed soon after dark falls. They live on the "lines", rows of wood-and-mud houses with little gardens full of chickens and goats. Compared to the slums of India's city, these artificial villages don't seem that bad; there is space and everybody has a roof over his head. But the jungle begins where the "lines" end, at the end of the street, and leopards have been known to come in at night to kill the chickens and goats.

We found a witch-doctor on the tea plantation at Gandrapara tea garden. His name was Ashok Goaala, a slight man with deep-set, dark eyes. He seemed more frightened than intimidating, and was dressed in Western clothes, a tatty shirt and trousers.

"I possess my power from God," he says. "I can cure sicknesses. For snakebites, I put herbs next to the bite and then I recite a mantra. People come from as far away as Assam and Nepal to see me. My great-grandfather was a witch-doctor."

When asked if he believed in witches, his reply made the skin prickle: "As far as I know, there are witches in the lines here," he says. The manager of the plantation, who was standing nearby, looked shocked, but Mr Goaala added: "I don't publicise this or point it out. I don't believe in witch-hunting. I am capable of handling it myself."

The management of the tea plantations is often as reticent about the incidents as the labourers. At the Gairkata tea garden, where a woman was beaten to death last year as an alleged "witch", the management claimed there were "no official records" of witch-killings. All over the tea gardens, you get the same answer: yes, it happens, but not here.

A visit to the local police station shows the difficulties police are working under. There is no air-conditioning, despite the damp jungle heat. Officers sit sweating and mopping their brows, cradling the military rifles they need to patrol India's lawless rural areas. There are separatist militants here, some roads are not safe to travel at night.

"We'd like you to do an article," Sub-Inspector Nirmo Yonzhan, the senior officer, says. "We want more exposure for the witch-hunting, we want to stop it." But producing his files on witch-killing is no easy task. The station has no computers, just thousands of dusty documents that would have to be laboriously sifted through. It could take days.

There are piles of documents like that about witch-hunting across India, but with so few witnesses prepared to testify against the killers, and traditional societies resisting efforts to wean them off the witch-doctors, they may just keep piling up.

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