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'Witch' killings haunt India's remote villages

World News
Sun, 20 Sep 2015
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World News: 'Witch' killings haunt India's remote villages
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Surseri Mandal, 72, who was blamed for practicing witchcraft after the residents of Dumra suspected that her evil spirit led to the death of a cow in the village, sits at an abode in Dumra village of eastern Jharkhand state. (AFP Photo)

The issue made international headlines in August when five women were dragged from their homes and beaten to death in neighbouring Jharkhand state.

Twenty-seven people were arrested over those killings, which happened after a self-proclaimed doctor declared the "witches" were casting evil spells that had caused several villagers' deaths.

"It continues to thrive because of people's strong belief in such remote areas that any illness, crop damage, loss of animal life or personal setback is somehow linked to the occult, witchcraft or kalajaadu (black magic)," Bijay Kumar Sharma, one of Orissa's most senior police officers, told AFP.

Sharma is charged with enforcing a specific law, introduced in Orissa last year, designed to tackle and reduce the number of crimes against people accused of witchcraft.

Other states have passed similar bills, including in remote, northeast Assam last month, which include jail terms and fines for branding someone a witch and for taking part in attacks against them.

But experts say laws alone are not enough, and are pressing for better education to combat the superstitions driving the violence.

"Ignorance about issues related to health, justice, agriculture or husbandry are at the root of why people become victims to such acts," rights activist Sashiprava Bindhani told AFP from Orissa's capital Bhubaneshwar.

Rapidly modernising India has also ignored many dirt-poor areas home to mainly tribal or indigenous groups where most of the witchcraft-linked crimes occur.

In these areas where basic social services like modern medical clinics are lacking, some villagers continue to turn to quack doctors who sometimes lay the blame for an unexplained misfortune or illness on black magic.

"Lack of information and access to basic services has to be corrected to address the problem," Bindhani said.

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