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Mrunal Manmay Dash

As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 177 people were killed in witch hunting and related crimes between 2008 and 2013 in Odisha.

From a national perspective, in cases related to witch hunting, Odisha has earned the dubious distinction of being ranked second after Jharkhand in the country. Moreover, the NCRB data reveals that as many as 26 individuals were killed in Odisha over suspicion of allegedly practising witchcraft in 2015.

Despite having laws in place that prohibit such activities, mortality figures and cases have steadily risen. In comparison to 83 cases in 2016 and 58 cases in 2015, Odisha reported 99 cases of witch hunting in 2017. As per the NCRB data, in 2019, Odisha witnessed 19 witchcraft related deaths and 102 deaths in India. But sadly, many cases have gone unreported and escaped public glare.

As per the reports, the tribal dominated districts like Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Ganjam, Sundargarh, Gajapati, Rayagada, Malkangiri and Koraput have a predominantly high number of witch hunting cases.

A study by the Odisha State Commission For Women (OSCW) revealed that the victims usually do not come forward to report due to fear or their acceptance of the practice. Lack of evidence leads to the release of the perpetrator. To punish someone for carrying out witch hunting, the court requires proof. In the case of witch hunting, it is a socially manifested crime. Hence, people remain silent either out of fear or acceptance of the practice, which becomes a hurdle in collecting evidence. Thus, proper justice is not served.

The study suggests the followings measures to be undertaken at different levels to combat the persecution:

Special Awareness drives need to be conducted in witch hunting prevalent districts of the state on priority basis.

Engagement with traditional leaders, women's groups, PRI members and so on is key towards creating awareness on the impact of witch hunting and the existing legislation. The involvement of traditional leaders, understanding local cultures and working from within the system is the need of the time. The collective decision of the Jati Samaj in terms of bringing resolutions against witch branding is crucial to the prevention of witch hunts.

Innovative programmes need to be designed with appropriate IEC in local languages to develop scientific temper. A communication strategy including effective toll BCC needs to be developed to build rational thoughts and scientific temper.

Building rational thoughts and scientific temper should be a part of the curriculum at different levels of education.

Meanwhile, the State government has proposed The Odisha Prevention And Prohibition Of Witch Branding And Hunting Act, 2021, which has the following provisions for the perpetrators:

Whoever, (i) identifies, calls, discriminates, stigmatizes, defames or accuses either by words, signs, indications, conducts, actions or any other manner, any person as witch, (ii) instigates or aids or abets any such acts mentioned in clause (i) above, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but can extend up to a term of five years and with fine, which shall not be less than Rs. 1,00,000/- but which may extend to Rs. 5,00,000/.

Whoever practices witchcraft or other similar practices with intent to cause harm or injury to any person shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to five years or with fine which shall not be less than Rs 5,00,000/- or with both.

Punishment for witch doctor

(i)Whoever- claims that s/he has supernatural or magical power to control or cure a witch shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three year but which may extend to seven years or with fine which shall not be less than Rs 1,00,000/- or with both; (ii) performs any ritual purportedly to free a woman from evil spirit shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to seven years or with fine which shall not be less than Rs 1, 00,000/- or with both; (iii) causes a witch doctor to perform any ritual purportedly to free a woman from evil spirit shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to seven years or with fine which shall not be less than Rs 1,00,000/- or with both.

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