A fleeting look at India shows a country moving ahead by leaps and bounds – an economy counted among the world's largest, a consumer base that attracts businesses the world over and the label of "incredible" that continues to work wonders for tourism.
But a closer look at the country, at its pockets of undisturbed rural spaces where a large chuck of India's population still thrives, and one will begin to understand what mars life in the Indian countryside. According to a report from the National Crime Records Bureau, 2097 people have been murdered between 2000 and 2012, on the suspicion of being witches.
Tales of cursed, cannibalistic sorcerers still dominate the narrative of life in rural India, to disastrous consequences. The idea of a witch is common among all off India's diverse communities; they're said to kill livestock, eat humans and are general harbingers of bad luck.
For Bahura Bai, a 40-year-old from Chattisgarh, the nightmare started shortly after a girl she had caressed in a swarming marketplace fell ill. Suspicions about her cemented into proper accusations when her brother-in-law was afflicted by an ailment a year later. Her relatives tried to choke her, and even now her sister-in-law wants to burn her alive.
Fourteen years ago, Teerath Sahu was beaten with iron rods, paraded naked and forced to drink cow urine after a witch doctor who had allegedly been smoking weed branded her and three other women witches. The women were also made to hold electrical cables to demonstrate to the villagers that witches do not get electrocuted.
In 2014, Indian athlete Debjani Bora, who had won several gold medals in javelin, was tied up and severely beaten by villagers in Assam after four men died in her village. After the assault, the athlete feared she would not be able to represent India in a forthcoming Asian track and field contest.
There are no objective tests to determine if someone is a witch. Dying cattle, or a string of unsuccessful crops may quickly spark rumors of a witch present in the village. A local shaman then carries out tests, one of which includes writing the names of women of a particular age on a Sal tree and identifying the witch as the one whose branch droops. Once declared witches, these women face the wrath of fellow villagers who pounce on them with axes and sticks, and usually rob them of their jewelry.
Witch hunting is strongest in states where the government has been unable so far to improve literacy, as in Jharkand, which ranks 25th in literacy among India's 28 states and has one of the high number of witch hunts. The hunts are also prevalent in communities riddled by conflict where the local culture has not had enough space to evolve and has instead become plagued with misogyny, like Chattisgarh, home of the decade-long dispute between the government and the Maoist rebels. Widows are targeted there for their land and inheritance.
Although the government passed the Witchcraft Atrocities (Prevention) Act in 2005 to rid the rural areas of the practice, victims and their families hesitate to inform the authorities due to the country's weak judicial system and for fear of further backlash.
While NGOs have been particularly active in educating tribal communities, their efforts have been hindered by the restricted authority that they have. In places where inhumane, all-male village councils still reign supreme, it will require the government to do more than half-hearted, ineffectual attempts at protecting its most vulnerable citizens.