Exorcising Evil: Chutni Mahato from Birbans in Jharkhand awarded the Padma Shri for her fight against witch-hunting

Chutni Mahato, survived a witch-hunt, and set about helping others like her who were accused of being witches. Between 2016 and 2019, 79 people were killed in Jharkhand on suspicions of practising witchcraft.

Ashwini Shukla
| Updated: February 3rd, 2021

Chutni Mahto. Photo: Ashwini Shukla

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Ranchi, Jharkhand

Chutni Mahto, is surprised that journalists are knocking on her doors for her interview. A relative of hers, explains to her that she has been awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour, for her work against witch-hunting.

Sixty-two-year-old Mahto herself was once a victim of witch-hunting and was abused and declared a daain (witch) by her in-laws and fellow villagers. She was held responsible for the ill health of a young girl in the neighbourhood and was accused of casting an ‘evil eye’ on the girl.

So intolerable did her situation become that in 1995, Mahto fled her husband’s house in Madkamdih village in Saraikela Kharsawan district, Jharkhand, 118 kms away from the state capital of Ranchi.

“Even the village Panchayat, declared I was a daain,” Mahto recalled the painful part of her life. She was abused, beaten and an ojha (witch doctor) was called to exorcise the evil spirits from her body.

A group of ojhas and other villagers decided to make her eat human excreta in order to cure her, and it was on that day that Mahto left her husband’s home in the dark of night with her four children, the oldest of whom was 12 years old. They walked for three days to Mahto’s parents’ home in Birbans, Seraikela Kharswan district, where she has lived ever since.

Today, Mahto runs a rehabilitation centre near her maternal house in Birbans panchayat where she helps women who are victims of witch-hunting. She has rescued over 125 women so far. “Whoever is being targeted as daain, we first try to resolve the matter through mediation, but if it doesn’t work then we provide the victims legal aid,” she said.

Mahto herself was once a victim of witch-hunting. Photo: Ashwini Shukla

It is in recognition and acknowledgement of her fight against witch-hunting practices that Mahto was conferred with the Padma Shri by the government of India.

Chutni Mahto was lucky she escaped with her life. Jharkhand has one of the highest number of witch-hunt murders in the country. The latest National Crime Record Bureau’s (NCRB) data shows that, in 2019, Jharkhand reported 15 of the 102 victims of witch hunt, killed across the country.

According to NCRB data, between 2016 and  2019, 79 people were killed in Jharkhand out of the 372 people killed across the country on suspicions of practising witch-craft.

“Belief in witches and super natural powers is widespread in the tribal communities and it is a main factor causing witch-hunting in Jharkhand,” Ajay Kumar Jaiswal, activist and founder of the nonprofit, Association for Social and Human Awareness which campaigns against the practices of witch-craft in the state, and works for the welfare of women and children particularly in tribal communities.

“In some cases when there is a property issue or a family dispute, they frame the woman as a witch in order to grab her land. Or if a woman resists sexual assault, the perpetrators brand her a witch,” Jaiswal said. A woman who spoke her voice was also easy game. That is what happened with Mahto.

“I was vocal, and spoke my mind about things I thought were wrong and the villagers did not like that. There were arguments for a long time and then they declared me a daain,” Mahto recounted.

There are laws that take serious cognisance of witch hunting.  The prevention of Witch (daain) Practices Act (2001), stipulates that anyone who tries to brand another person as a ‘witch’ shall be punished with a fine of Rs 1000 and/or imprisonment upto three months. The act also states that anyone found causing “any kind of physical or mental torture to any person by identifying her as a witch (daain)” is liable to a fine of Rs 2,000 and/or imprisonment of up to six months. Ojhas who claim to heal a ‘witch’ are also liable to imprisonment for a year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. “There were five ojhas who had come to heal me. None of them was punished, even the police did not help me,” stated Mahto.

Activists say this has in no way curbed violence against women accused of witchcraft. “The way in which these women are killed and abused is brutal, and when you see the law, the punishment is very less,” said Jaiswal.

There is much to be done before the dehumanising and cruel practice is defeated, said Mahato. “This is a fight and I will fight it (witch-hunting) till my death. But there is a long way to go and  I still need help from the panchayat and the government to stop witch-hunting,” she said.