Monday, December 31, 2001

Divining Evil: The State and Witchcraft in Bastar

“Divining Evil: The State and Witchcraft in Bastar”. In Journal of Gender, Technology and Development, 5 (3), 2001, 425-448.

This article examines witchcraft accusations in Bastar, a predominantly adivasi or ‘tribal’ area  in central India. In the European witch crazes of the 16th and 17th centuries, which set the tone for much work on witchcraft, witches were predominantly women. In other Indian adivasi areas like Jharkhand or the Dangs, witch accusations have effectively been used to dispossess women, often widows, of land. In Bastar, while belief in witchcraft and sorcery is widespread, as part of a wider cosmology in which all unnatural actions, whether good or bad, are attributed to the work of the earth, spirits or motivated humans, my evidence, albeit limited, suggests that both men and women are equally targets of suspicion. Suspected practitioners of the ‘occult’ need not fit any pattern of gender, age, dependency or kinship. However, all accusations appear to follow a series of illnesses. Accusations of occult malpractice therefore seem a way of coping with the uncertainties of human existence and attributing agency to local actors in a context where, in practice, people have little power.  While the state has concentrated on coercive measures like imprisonment for those who have killed practitioners of the occult, it has done little to redress the concerns that give rise to such violence -  such as abysmal health services or the lack of land or other means of livelihood. While those accused of being witches are no doubt victims, those who kill them are perhaps equally victims of state negligence.