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Babu Gogineni

Following several gruesome murders of alleged witchcraft

practitioners in the last few months in India, Humanist
organisations in South India joined hands to launch a fight
against black magic so that the lives of several vulnerable
persons may be saved.

A Committee for Elimination of Witchcraft was formed, with Babu

Gogineni as its Chair and Mr. Laxman Reddy as Convenor.
Several of IHEU associates and MOs (Jana Chaitanya Vedika, Jana
Vignana Vedika, Manava Vikasa Vedika, Rationalist Forum,
Spoorthi, Disha, Viveka Vidyalayam, Federation of Indian
Rationalist Associations, Netra Dana Protsahaka Sangham and
the Atheist Center) came together to found the Committee which
has seen a great expansion in its membership since its founding
in October 2010.
IHEU’s International Director Babu Gogineni writes about the
problem and reports on a phenomenally successful meeting
organised by the Humanists – attended by over 7000 young
people to whom he administered a pledge to fight witchcraft and

A World Wide Problem

The terror of black magic even in these modern times has to be tackled as
an emergency to wipe out a blot on our common humanity. It is not a
problem limited to India –, witchcraft and sorcery constitute the dark side
of human society.

While they do not, and cannot, have any real effect on the material world,
because of the prevailing ignorance and irrational fear, suspicions of
witchcraft or sorcery provoke extreme responses of fear and mass
hysteria in society.

In Europe, in the 17th and the 18th centuries, the ‘legal’ trial of over
100,000 so-called witches was conducted by the Church, resulting in the
extermination of at least 50,000 unfortunate men and women. A well
known example from the USA is the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 where
fears of demonic possessions and sorcery led to several hundreds of
persons being accused and tried, and to the horrific killing of 19 men and

Sadly, in many parts of Africa, Asia & South America, even in today’s
modern age, witch-accusation, witch-hunting and witch-killing continue to
be a blot on human civilization. In the absence of a reasoned policy
initiative in any of the countries where the problem exists, the contagion
is spreading.
A Human Rights Disaster
According to a UN report, between 30,000 and 50,000 destitute children
live in the streets of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), abandoned
by their parents on suspicion that the child is a witch or is possessed by
the devil. Several thousands of witch killings and human sacrifices are
reported every year from all over the world.

The UN also released in 2009 a report stating that internal displacement

and forced exile of those accused of witchcraft affects tens of millions of
people in Africa and Asia.

Mere Accusation is a Death Sentence

In India, the ‘accusation’ against a person of being a witch or a sorcerer is
almost certain to be a death sentence for the ‘accused’. After researching
National Crime Bureau statistics, the Dehradun-based Rural Litigation and
Entitlement Kendra revealed in July 2010 that more than 2,500 women
were killed in India by crazed mobs in the past 15 years on suspicion that
they were practicing witchcraft. Unofficial estimates are at least double
this number as several murders go unreported, and these statistics do not
count the men being killed.

In India, Jharkhand state tops the official list in India with the highest
number of annual witch-killings, while Andhra Pradesh is second with an
estimated 30 such murders every year. Haryana and Orissa follow.

In Andhra Pradesh, where black magic is known as Banamati, Chetabadi

or Chillangi, the belief that common everyday objects such as lemons,
chillies and turmeric powder, combined with evil intentions, incantations
and magical spells can cause harm is the culprit behind many tragedies
and much mischief.

Irrational beliefs lead people to suspect the ‘evil hand’ of a sorcerer in the
event of illness or sudden death in the family, or when there is a crop
failure or a financial loss in business. Usually a person close to the family,
or another villager is identified as the person causing their misfortune,
and they are then subjected to brutal punishment, resulting in gross and
violent abuse of their most basic Human Rights.

Treatment reserved for the accused

While the ‘lucky’ ones are simply excommunicated, and their families are
driven out of their habitations, most persons accused of sorcery and
witchcraft, and of casting spells, are dealt with far more brutally and
shamefully by the mob.

- Some are paraded naked in the streets of the village.

- Others have had chilli powder rubbed into their genital organs.

- Still others have been made to drink urine and eat human excreta.
- Some are tied to a tree and their heads are shaved off.

- Some are just pressurised to make them accept that they are

- Many have had their teeth plucked out while still being conscious so
that they become incapable of saying magical incantations clearly.

- Some are beaten with sticks and stones, with the entire frenzied
village witnessing, or encouraging, the brutality.

- Some are challenged to prove their innocence by dipping their

hands in boiling oil – burnt hands indicate guilt. Thus, everyone who
is forced to ‘prove’ his or her innocence will be confirmed as witches
since anyone dipping hands in boiling oil will be burnt unless they
resort to special tricks.

- Fellow villagers or family members who might come to the rescue of

the accused may end up being treated in a similar manner.
- After all this, the mob may just kill the accused by setting them

- There are many instances where the police who try to intervene or
who arrive at the scene of crime a few hours later have also been
attacked by the villagers.

Even those not killed can hardly lead a normal life after the humiliation,
mutilation, loss of human dignity, trauma of near death and the constant
fear of further violence.

Ignorance, Prejudice and Greed

Ignorance and fear are frequently combined with social prejudice and

A majority of victims of these heinous crimes are women and the elderly.
In fact, citing cases from South Africa, India and Nepal, in a 2002 report
the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women identified
witchcraft beliefs as a cultural practice that is violent towards women.

Many cases are documented all over India where a widow has been
accused of practising witchcraft by family members who covet her
property, or by those whose sexual advances she has spurned. It has
become a means for criminal intimidation.

Further, accusation of witchcraft is also a potent instrument for mischief

by those who wish to settle personal scores – because such accusations
ruin the lives of the accused.

Those from the lower castes have been targeted by the more powerful
sections in the village as a means of exercising control over them.
This sad situation is aided and abetted by a rash of popular films that
have focussed on witchcraft and sorcery in recent times, reviving a
dangerous belief.

Some high-profile directors and producers, with no regard for the

consequences that their productions have for the welfare of society, have
even issued mischievous and provocative advertisements that do not
support the scientific temper which in Article 51 (a) (h), the Constitution of
India exhorts all to promote. Such films, shown in mature societies are
enjoyed by viewers, but in societies where ignorance prevails, these can

Not just About Policing

While the Police machinery acts correctly and promptly when crimes
related to Banamati, Chetabadi or Chillangi are reported, in our state
there is no special and specific legislation empowering them to take
proactive steps.

In Jarkhand, Bihar, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan the government machinery

is empowered to act, thanks to the Anti-Witchcraft legislation there, even
if they do not consider in an adequate manner the rehabilitation of the

It would be an inadequate response if the problem were seen to be a mere

law and order problem to be tackled by the police alone: this prevailing
situation is a result of several hundreds of years of backwardness and
needs a national volunteer and professional effort to improve the situation
that may take several decades of determined action.

In view of the damage done to the psyche of the individuals as well as to

that of a society already assaulted by the wrong claims of astrology,
vaastu (fengshui) and coloured stones purported to have magical
qualities, the present rash of witch-killings requires urgent action.


In this context, the Committee made the following recommendations to

the authorities:

a). Counselling and rehabilitation of those who are indulging in black

magic, witchcraft and sorcery so that they are able to choose an
alternative livelihood.

b). The prosecution if needed of those who are indulging in black magic
even after their counselling, so that the spread of terror in society is
checked: these sorcerers are both perpetrators of superstition and at the
same time, victims of the fear that they engender in society.

c). The protection from the mob, and support for rehabilitation and
resettlement of those accused of practising witchcraft –either falsely or
truly - so that there is no danger to their life and limb.
d). The successful prosecution of persons who indulge in witchcraft related

e). The recognition as a crime any act involving the

identification/accusation of a person as a witch or a sorcerer: any act that
will endanger the lives and well being of a person who is accused of
practising witchcraft should be criminalised attracting exemplary

f). The urgent deployment of doctors, psychiatrists and science

popularisers to provide counselling, as well as the latest scientific
explanations, so that the gullible do not attribute their misfortunes to

It is not simply that the administration should intervene after each

instance of a tragedy, but that proactive steps should be taken to change
the prevailing cultural atmosphere where the magical perception of life is
dominant, through appropriate lessons in school and training of teachers
so that these events do not occur again in the future.


20 organisations, politicians from four political parties (including a legislator from

a nearby constituency), 120 volunteers, TV5 and Studio N TV Channels with their
Outdoor Broadcast Vans, all major TV Channel and Newspaper reporters, the
police anti-superstition cultural troop, Humanist anti-superstition activists
Chandraiah, Saraiah, Salim, Biksham and a heaving crowd of some 7000 youth
eager to watch the show and learn more about science and superstition!

Eager men and women walking briskly over burning embers to show that there
are no magical powers behind such feats. Anti-superstition activists who
marched in the streets and pulled a car with hooks put in their own backs to
demonstrate the strength of the human skin. An excited Mr. Chandraiah who
excelled his usual self and taught the vast gathering the intricacies of magic and
superstition. Live coverage every hour for the whole day on TV5 as well as
special programs on TV9, Gemini TV, Studio N, NTV, Vanita TV and Saakshi TV
ahead of the events as curtain raisers.

This is what marked the first anti-witchcraft rally organised in Suryapet by IHEU’s
associates Disha and Spoorthi and their Humanist leaders Anjaneyulu and
Veeraswami – an event that announced to the world the resolve of Humanists to
fight the scourge of black magic which afflicts society.

This event, as well as several other events in preparation for this, were organised
in Suryapet town which is some 150 kms from Hyderabad. Suryapet became the
focus of everyone’s attention following a rash of witchcraft murders in the region
that stunned the nation – for example, a man beheaded his own mother
suspecting that she was a witch, and in another village two old men were burnt
alive by a group of women who suspected that they were sorcerers. The
hysterical and frenzied women claimed they did nothing wrong as they were
protecting themselves.
Most suspicions of witchcraft arise in people’s minds when they see lemon,
chillies and turmeric powder deposited outside their houses. Once they know
they have been targeted, they start looking for the ‘culprits’, and soon home
onto a poor man or woman with whom they have previously had a fight, or pick
on someone identified by the local black magic man as the ‘culprit’.

Suryapet is not alone – Prof. Nayak, President of the Federation of Indian

Rationalist Associations explained to the crowd the heart rending story of how a
1000 kilometres away a little girl was abducted and killed so that her skin could
be used for a tantric ritual. People from other parts of the state told their own
disturbing stories that brought tears to the eyes – in one district a group of
youngsters of college going age plucked out the teeth – while they were
conscious - of a couple who they accused of black magic.

The gloom was more than offset by the optimism and enthusiasm of the groups
organising and participating in the events. Also, the participation of some
humanistically oriented politicians who declared their own personal rationalist
orientation was most encouraging. Mr. Jagadeeswar Reddy of TRS Party as well
as legislator Mr. Motkupalli Narsasimhulu from TDP pledged their full support, as
did Mr. Ramineni Prabhakar of the BJP. Mr. Jagadeeswar Reddy even started the
fire walk and Mr. Narshimhulu offered to organise a similar program in his own

The program ended with Babu Gogineni, as Chair of the Committee to Eliminate
Witchcraft and Related Violence, administering an oath to the leaders and the
participants of the meeting. All of them declared that they had no superstitious
beliefs and pledged to fight superstition wherever they encountered it.

The event was followed up by the Humanist leaders with a meeting with the
Director General of Police, the top police official of the state, who promised the
fullest cooperation of his department and also offered to attach two of his
officers for effective implementation of the anti-superstition campaign. The
Humanists are now working on a model legislation which could empower
government officials also to tackle the problem in a more serious manner. All this
activity is bound to be a major one for Humanists and Rationalists in the region
because of the scale of the problem, but this model of activism and working with
the government machinery is bound to be a model for the rest of the region.