Djinn and Tonic: A Discussion on Witch-hunting as Resistance to Colonialism


The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.


The practice of witch-hunting — the persecution, often until death, of women accused of being witches — has persisted in India since pre-colonial times. The practice stems from the belief that these women are the source of misfortunes such as serious illness, loss of property and even death. During the struggles against the British in 1857–58, there was a marked increase in incidents of witch-hunting. In the year of the 150th  anniversary of the 1857 rebellion, a discussion ensued in the pages of EPW regarding these witch hunts; whether they constituted acts of resistance in tune with the events of the time or whether they were attempts by agents within tribal society to use the prevailing disorder to their own ends.

In an article published in May 2007, titled "1857: Witch-hunts, Adivasis and the Uprising in Chhotanagpur," Shashank Sinha argued that the tribals of this region had engaged in witch-hunting as a conscious, albeit indirect symbolic confrontation with the British, likening it to the everyday forms resistance that James Scott identified. Sinha points out that Santals exhibit a strong belief in the magical powers of witches and spirits whose evil influence could be detected and undone by their benign counterparts, "ojhas" (medicine men). While being rid of the evil influence of spirits often involves offerings and sacrifices, the only remedy for the witches’ influence was the removal of the witches themselves. Prior to 1857 the British had made concerted efforts to bring an end to the practice of witch-hunting, which they saw as barbaric, and outlawed in several places. In Chhotanagpur, the practice of witchcraft and "sokhaism" were banned in the 1930s, and a hospital was also set up in the hope of discouraging the belief in magic by treating illness with modern medicine. Sinha argues that these efforts did not sit well with the Adivasis and instead fostered the belief that witches were flourishing under British rule. Thus, during the disturbances of 1857, they took the opportunity to rid themselves of the witches that had accumulated in their midst.

Daya Varma responded to Sinha’s article in a letter in June 2007, suggesting that the Santhal practice of witch-hunting, when viewed alongside witchcraft and witch-hunting worldwide, reveals other variables at play within Santhal society. Where Sinha mentions the gendered tensions in passing, Varma places them front and centre. She points out that, as was the case in Europe, in Chhattisgarh too, “witches were mostly poor working-class women, old and widowed.” And their accusers were often the medical men whose incomes were threatened by these witches. Among the Santhals these were the affluent ojhas. Varma also casts doubt on the claim of witch-hunting as resistance by pointing out that the practice existed long before the arrival of the British and persisted long after their expulsion. Similar doubts are raised by Ata Mallick who, in her article titled "Witch-hunting in 1857" dated September 2008, argued that although the witch hunters declared themselves to be motivated by communitarian religious concerns, personal enmity or material gain were often the motives behind the murder of witches and wizards. Using several reports and court cases, Mallick shows that if the voices of the victims of witch-hunting and their families are considered, we see that there was less community sanction for witch-hunting than Sinha would have us believe. Noting that many of the victims were men, she casts doubt on Sinha’s claim that witch hunts revealed gender tensions in tribal society. Finally, through the claims of the victims’ families she reveals that the motives of witch hunters were often self-interested rather than purely communitarian concerns.


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