The vicious grip of superstition over people, and the general indifference in society to the plight of its victims, is both infuriating and baffling.
Thoughts, wishes, incantations or magical spells cannot affect the physical universe in any way, and yet, the belief that everyday objects are dangerous or could attain special powers through magical rituals wreak real havoc in people’s lives. The absurdity of the belief notwithstanding, for the sorcerer and for those believing in the occult, witchcraft is real as are its social consequences.
Perpetrators of delusion and deception, sorcerers are both offenders and victims.
They terrorise people with claims of magical powers; and they are very often victims of mob justice when people ignorantly attribute their woes to suspected spells cast by the sorcerers. The intelligentsia hardly help, obsessed as they are themselves with new- age rituals and the occult.
In India and in Nepal, a lemon, a few chillies, some turmeric powder and a dead chicken placed outside one’s home can lead a household to panic since this indicates that someone has cast an evil spell. The search for the offender who has planted these ‘lethal’ objects will end in the eventual identification of one who will be lynched by the mob.
Very often, the ‘accused’ sorcerers abandon their homes and flee, or sadly kill themselves to ‘escape’ the physical punishment, humiliation, torture, ritual abuse, plucking of teeth as well as death that surely awaits them.
Over 2,500 women were killed in India in the last 10 years after being branded as witches, as per the National Crime Bureau statistics. The number of men thus killed is still unknown. Associated with witchcraft is the sacrifice of children for obtaining hidden treasures, but no reliable statistics are available.
Other underdeveloped and developing countries too have a similar gruesome record: Bolivia, Guatemala and Haiti are hotbeds of sorcery and voodoo and extreme violence against witches. In 1998, about one hundred alleged sorcerers were killed in just the one district of Banyuwangi District, East Java, Indonesia.
In 2007, in Papua New Guinea, 200 were killed in one year in one single district. Almost all the victims of such violence are women, just as they were in medieval Europe when over 50,000 witches were drowned, hanged or burnt at the stake by the church.
A leaked home affairs ministry report in Tanzania says 5,000 persons were killed between 1994 and 1998, while in the next three years around 17,220 women suffered serious physical abuse on suspicion of practising sorcery. A BBC journalist helplessly recorded the burning alive of a witch in Kenya, where there have also been instances of old people being accused of witchcraft just so that relatives could get rid of them.
Ghana has officially sponsored witch camps where thousands of women accused of witchcraft are incarcerated and also administered potent and poisonous potions to get rid of their evil powers. Some die because of the potions.
I saw posters in Nigeria announcing services by witches claiming to turn your enemies into dogs! Indeed, in Angola a goat was arrested by the police because people claimed that a criminal transformed himself into a goat to escape.
The heart rending fact from the Democratic Republic of Congo is that nearly 50,000
children are homeless because their parents expelled them after being told by Church leaders that there were signs of the devil in their children and that even exorcism would not help.
Hundreds of albinos in East Africa are hunted and killed for their body parts which are considered good luck. It was the horrific killing in the UK of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié from Ivory Coast by her own family on suspicion that she was possessed by evil spirits that highlighted to the world the problem of witchcraft and sorcery even in the developed world.
Indeed, it is a most distressing situation; a UN report in 2009 indicated that the internal displacement of people who flee because of witchcraft or allegations of sorcery amounts to tens of millions all over the world.
How should the problem be tackled?
The American and European experience where the machinery of the State was put to the service of educating people about the absurdity of these beliefs and their deadly consequences and the weaning away of the people from the lure of the magical conception of the universe is to be implemented worldwide.
For India, it should be considered a national emergency and the services of school teachers, science popularisers, scientists and opinion makers should be used to usher India into the modern age.
This is, especially important because we also know that in periods of uncertainty and economic distress, the incidents will rapidly go up, worldwide.