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This ‘Witch’ Couldn’t Save Herself

New Indian Express
28 May, 2003

PALARI (RAIPUR): Before Palari police could rescue her,
Shivwati had been branded a tonahi (village witch),
dragged out of her house by her hair, beaten up in public,
tortured and even forced to consume human faeces.

No one in Junwani village, less than 10 km from Palari in
Chhattisgarh, came to her rescue as Shivwati lay motionless
for four hours because of broken bones. ‘‘She was just 15
minutes away from her death,’’ says Palari SHO G.D. Lehare.

Among those who helplessly watched were her father-in-law
Dharam Chand and two brothers-in-law. Women and children
locked themselves inside while her husband Vinod Nishad
ran from house to house in search of village kotwar
(chowkidar) Kalyan Dass. Approaching police was his
last resort.

Though it’s been a week to the incident and police have
already sent 13 accused, including eight women — all from
one family — to the jail, there is an uneasy calm in the
village. For Jiwan Lal, whose family (seven brothers) is
involved in the incident, wields considerable influence
over the community.

Most families in the village, except that of Jiwan Lal,
are poor and work as labourers. Admits Shivwati’s
father-in-law Dharam Chand Nishad: ‘‘We could not dare to
save her. She was beaten up mercilessly and tortured before
our eyes. We are so ashamed of ourselves that we cannot
face Shivwati now.’’ Himself one of the village panchs,
Nishad says Shivwati is innocent.

Junwani — a predominantly backward caste village — was
first to witness a tonahi incident. Shivwati Bai, now
discharged from the hospital and living with her parents
at neighbouring village of Gitpuri, is unable to fathom
why she was singled out and branded a tonahi.

She had been away for seven months with her husband to work
as a migrant labourer in Maharashtra and had returned barely
15 days back. All she can put her finger to is a tiff she had
with Jiwan Lal’s wife but she says she was quite friendly
with Purnima, Jiwan Lal’s daughter.

It was Purnima who had fainted two days after her own marriage.
In her unconsciousness, she reportedly named Shivwati as being
the cause of her ‘‘ailment’’, triggering the story of witch-hunt
and vendetta. The villagers forced Vinod to shell out Rs 2,000
for the village baiga (the witch doctor) Lussu Ram for treating

‘‘We had returned from Maharashtra and had a saving of Rs 5,000. Perhaps someone was eyeing our cash. A day before Shivwati was dragged to the village chowki, I was told to pay Rs 2,000 to the village baiga,’’ Vinod says. He refuses to return to the village, not because he fears a fresh assault but his faith
in the village is totally shaken. ‘‘How can I live there,
where my own are of no help to me,’’ he asks.

Dinesh Mishra, who heads a Raipur-based NGO working on
superstitions, says: ‘‘We are making efforts to being the
woman back and make the villagers repent for their actions.’’
Another NGO compiling data and tending to tonahi cases claims
superstitions are just an excuse to settle scores with women
of weaker sections.