Witch hunts may conjure images of hysterical Europe in the Middle Ages or 17th century Salem, but in some parts of rural India this practice is still in vogue. Around the tea plantations of Jalpaiguri, illiterate tribal workers often blame “witches” for disease outbreaks. Amidst such conditions, drunken villagers impulsively identify a “witch,” usually killed on the spot.
Around 84 million tribal people who traditionally believe in witches live in India, accounting for around 8 percent of the country’s population. In 2003, five women were publicly tied up, tortured and murdered after being accused of using witchcraft to kill a male villager who had suffered from a stomach illness.
Now, a female-led grassroots movement is pushing back against this practice. Small groups of local women who met through a non-government loan program added abolishing witch hunts to their agenda of societal betterment. They also aim to fight back against domestic abuse and alcoholism.
The pioneering women have enjoyed a few successes. In one case, villagers planned to attack a woman accused of causing livestock diseases. Members of the self-help group gathered in a vigil around the woman’s home and surrounded the accuser’s home as well, stating their case to the accuser’s wife. Eventually, the wife intervened and her husband recanted and “begged for forgiveness,” according to a press release.
The movement is “helping provide a voice to women who wouldn’t otherwise have one,” said Soma Chaudhuri, a sociologist at Michigan State University who authored a paper on the topic. But Chaudhuri is also realistic, pointing out that the women’s group is fighting against centuries of tradition, misogyny and closed-mindedness. ”I can see the potential for this developing into a social movement,” she said, “but it’s not going to happen in a day because an entire culture needs to be changed.”
More from Smithsonian.com: