Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Every once in a while, I come across news of witch-craft murders in rural parts of West Bengal. Such incidents are alarmingly common in villages of Orissa too. Like yesterday, I was particularly disturbed after reading about a man who beheaded his aunt with one swift lash of his tangia (an axe-like tool) in Mayurbhanj district.

That was not the gory part that upset me though:

The man actually walked about 8 km to a police station, with the severed head in one hand, the axe in another, and surrendered himself.

I asked someone to read the copy and his reply humbled me.

"This is very common there. The tribals, they are so simple people, they do such crimes on an impulse, and then don't know what to do with the head. So, they walk all the way with it and submit it to authorities."

Simple is the word my father also often used for the tribals of Panchamahals in Gujarat. He had spent the best, brief years of his childhood in a place called Dahod. Dahod was teeming with wilderness and tribals then and joy of his association with the innocent folks — with all their poverty and superstitions — has not faded till this day.

"They are very simple people who do not know greed," he says.

When I used to read about such witch-craft murders earlier, I was revolted with the sheer violence of the description. My immediate reaction was one of disgust and reproach. Last evening's brief conversation has changed the way I see things.

The act is not as violent as the ignorance, the haplessness of people staying in such remote, neglected regions is...


feddabonn said...

[disclaimer: i do *not mean to be offensive/argumentative, just thinking aloud]

"The act is not as violent as the ignorance, the haplessness of people..."

isn't their 'lack' of greed a good thing? and their ability to face up to what they have done? which national/international/state leader/murderer has ever fronted up to their crime? clinton? bush? indira gandhi? advani?

as a tribal myself, and well aware of the good side of 'development', i am however increasingly unsure and suspicious of those that would 'reform' our ways and 'superstitions' as they are called.

Sara said...

Its a heinous crime triggered by ignorance and probably misunderstanding of religion.Its shocking to know that just things are still commonplace in some areas.

Sujoy Bhattacharjee said...

Well, as "supposedly" modern denizens we abhor such acts of violence,. But time was when mankind as a whole was involved in such acts. Witch-hunting was quite prevalent in medieval Europe. What about Joan of Arc, how does modern society view is a pity that we condemn such acts and blame them on the people involved, when the actual entity responsible for this is the government. Ignorance is not something that you can accuse people of when they lack the resources and the luxury of gaining knowledge through education. Your post has the heart in the right place but what is needed is a deeper understanding.

manju said...

On the one hand, there is the view that tribals should not be forced to change their way of life-

On the other hand the tribals can be punished under the laws of the 'civilised' world (In this case the Indian Penal Code).

That is not to say that murder should be condoned. But how to decide what can be done in accordance with their customs and what cannot?

It's a complicated situation...

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree... more ignorance than violence. I feel we have failed miserably in letting basic education reach every corner of the country. Our government interferes so much with higher education and neglects basic, primary education...
I feel our government should make anybody who avails of subsidized education (IIT, AIMS, all government medical colleges) pay back the tax payer by signing a bond and serving in such areas for ten years... that became a long rant :(

Solilo said...

Ignorance of religious rituals and greed triggers such heinous crimes.

sm said...

interesting post
again highlighting the point that we need reforms

Gauri Gharpure said...

Baruk- :) no need of disclaimers. i like to know wht you think, and i love that you don't mince your words.

lack of greed, yes! and it's that ability to own up that touched me, after that talk..

there was no scheming, cunning. the idea didn't even occur to him to abscond. and on second thoughts, the part that seemed gory (carrying the severed head) also reinforces simplicity. i was once told that it takes a lot of will to deal with a) filth b) violence. scavengers and soldiers being the case in point. these tribes need to be respected.

i often feel we have come to think of development and modernization as one and the same and so end up with concrete jungles everywhere where the need is much more basic.

Sara, Solilo-- Heinous is the word i would play down, esp. with ref. to this post. :)

Sujoy-- nowhere in this post i have blamed, or condemned the man for what he did. also, ignorance is not an accusation-- it is a reality in these parts, for which again, they are not to be blamed.

Manju-- very interesting points.. yes, it's complicated!

IHM-- i was told there is some such rule in WB, doctors have to work in rural areas for a stipulated period. not sure till what extent it is followed..

i remember some words from No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.. Mma Ramotswe says something like, there's a lot of suffering in this world and we can't do enough. but the suffering that I come by, i must try to ease.. others will take care of the suffering they witness. and that would solve things.. beautiful na?
so, not just doctors and engineers, each person is responsible in whatever miniscule way.

SM-- we dicussed the NDA application rules i read on your blog.. got to hear a lot of interesting stories about cadets from Bhutan and Nepal.. :) thanks for dropping by the blog.

Sujoy Bhattacharjee said...

Apologies.... I didn't mean to criticize your personal views on the incident which as a matter of fact are quite true objective. I was speaking of the the Great Indian Public Opinion which, ipso facto, includes you and me.

feddabonn said...

@gauri: thanks for the clarification. i still, however, question your use of the terms 'superstition' and 'ignorance'.

why is it superstitious to believe in witchcraft, and not so to believe that a) jesus walked on water b) vishnu has many avatars c) allah actually spoke with the prophet d) buddha achieved nirvana e) that there is a missing link between apes and humans or even f) that capitalism will make us all happy?

secondly, ignorance. ignorance of *what, may i ask? definitely not ignorance of his religion, as some have glibly suggested. he probably knew a good bit more of his religion than any of us on this blog. ignorance that killing is wrong? but didn't our dear prime minister tell the biggest mass murderer of our generation that india loved him? and his actions (the tribal, not bush) seem to indicate remorse, not ignorance!

i am *not defending the killing. i lean strongly towards the belief that ANY killing, in the name of religion, custom, country, retributive justice or family honour is wrong-we should be wary of destroying what we cannot create. what i am asking for is understanding of our customs and our 'odd' ways. not sympathy. and definitely not 'reform'.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Baruk, after reading your comment, i re-read the entire post and found one usage objectionable.. instead of writing -all their poverty and superstitions- the better usage would have been beliefs.

using superstition this way, bracketing all beliefs in one, is wrong.

what i mean by superstition.
the man assumed that his aunt was using witch-craft against his wife. he thought she was to blame for her constant illnesses and so, killed her. this, for me is superstition, i did not mention it in the post.

about ignorance- the act has nothing to do with religion- it merely shows that he was ignorant that illnesses occur due to some specific physiological reasons and can have a definite cure.

basic awareness (i am not even using the word education here, for it seems far-fetched and idealistic in the remote region he stayed in) and access to medicines/ medical advise may have prevented the death.

let me cite another case of what i see as ignorance. a man was bitten by a snake and his family promptly called witch-doctors instead of rushing him to the hospital. he died. in this case, the hospital was not far away..

these are the two cases of superstition and ignorance, as i see the two, because these led to death.

had some basic reforms reached the area, such deaths could have been avoided.

now, about your apprehensions against the word 'reform'.

do you not think that the insistence to stay away from reforms in above mentioned two cases would be counter-productive? it may isolate them even more than they already are?

also, if the anti-reforms logic applies, why are the tribals of Jangalmahal taking up weapons and leading a mass movement, complaining of lack of basic facilities like education and healthcare.

if the population was really content with its own ways and beliefs, why is it then complaining of utter neglect?

because--- culture, race, tribe, religion and beliefs are on one side and the hope, the urge to live a better life is on the other side. this desire can outweigh our beliefs of who we are.

coming to think of it, i don't think anyone is beyond superstitions. elaborate, expensive pujas may be one projection of superstition. stopping when a black cat crosses, or when someone sneezes, is superstition-- and I, in spite of knowing so, still feel a pinch when one of the two happen. so, in some strange way, i am in the same boat as the Mayurbhanj tribal.. i have a luxury to choose my beliefs inconsistently, he doesn't.

in the end, can you suggest some books / internet sources so that i may attack my ignorance on indian tribal customs?

feddabonn said...

@gauri: another disclaimer, in addition to the earlier one, which still stands. i am not in *any way a spokesperson for the tribes, nor am i an expert. these opinions are my own. many tribals (including my mother) violently disagree with some of my views. also, my understanding of what you called 'superstition' and 'ignorance' and others have wanted to 'reform' was that we were talking about the religion and the killing. i think i better understand what you mean now.

i think i can safely say that there is no particular 'tribal' culture, especially not in india, which makes it difficult to suggest any reading. it would be safer to search for material on a particular group. while there are similarities between tribes, these may be more because of proximity, similar languages, similar racial makeup, histories etc. some of the common elements of tribal societies, such as the level of dependence on the community, communal ownership/management of land, nature based non complex religions etc. are often common knowledge. i will, however, pass on any reading i find informative.

i am not against 'reform' in general, or development. what i question is the *kind of development, and the speed at which we accept it. as an example, in assam (three hours from the capital) is a government hospital that is usually left unmanned. the doctor is supposed to come weekly-usually doesn't. there is a insanely long queue of people waiting to be treated, many of them brought on foot or push cart from many kilometres away. the locals are doubly screwed-they have no knowledge of the old medical systems, and the new 'developed' system has failed them. also look at where 'modern' agriculture has led farmers to mono-crop cash crops, making them starve when the market fails.

while i believe in the right of the tribals of jangalmahal to determine their own future, i am not sure they really know what is in store.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Sujoy, Baruk--
thnks for getting back.. we have clarified ourselves enough and i am glad the discussions took place

dharmabum said...

very interesting post, and more so, the discussions in the comments section.

what i liked most about this is the simple revelation - leading to a change in perspective. it happens so often with me - where i am so convinced of certain 'ways' of thinking, that i need something from the outside - a person, an incident, a book - to help me even realise that there may be another way of looking at things.

long time. how you be, gauriji? :)

Gauri Gharpure said...

dharmaa..:) so nice to see u here, on my tavern as you would say, after a long time..

yes, tht simple explanation struck a chord.. strange then, how sometimes even long hours of convincing fail to change our stubborn points of view...

dharmabum said...

:) gauriji,

tavern indeed :) my pleasure to be here!

yes, sometimes long hours dont seem to do what such simple things are capable of. strange indeed.

Kaushik Chatterji said...

Can't blame them for their plight can we? What have we done, in spite of having lived in the power centers for more than a third of the 60-odd years that our nation has been independent?