Earlier this month, a group of local youth in the Indian village of Kajiya Maraytoli in the eastern state of Jharkhand dragged 53-year-old Etwaria Kholkho out of her home and accused her of being a witch.
They demanded she identify the other witches in the village, the Indian Express newspaper reported, following which she named her mother Ratiya Kholkho and three others — 55-year-old Madni Kholkho and 40-year-old Tetri Kholkho (both unrelated to the first two women) as well as Jasinta Toppo, also 40.
The five women were then brought together and publicly beaten to death by a mob of around 50 people with sticks, bricks and stones. The Aug. 7 lynching followed a meeting of village residents to discuss the recent ill health of several villagers and their animals, triggered by the death of a 17-year-old boy a few days earlier that a “sorcerer” from a neighboring village had allegedly blamed on witchcraft.
The killing came two weeks after a 63-year-old woman in the northeastern Indian state of Assam was beheaded in broad daylight after being accused of bringing bad luck to the village through witchcraft.
These incidents are far from rare, but simply the latest occurrences in the ever-present practice of witch-hunting across the South Asian nation. In Jharkhand, where the five women were killed, data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau shows that 220 people have been murdered for witchcraft between 2008 and 2013 — the most of any Indian state. The problem is far more widespread, though, with the Indian government reporting nearly 2,300 deaths of alleged “witches” nationwide since the year 2000.
“These are happening in remote areas where life is hard,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), tells TIME. “When people are living in really harsh circumstances where they’re pretty much on the edge of subsistence or when a challenge occurs that they cannot help, they start looking for people to blame — whether it’s a poor crop or ill health,” she says, comparing the Indian phenomenon to burnings at the stake in medieval Europe.
In Assam, where the elderly woman was beheaded last month and where more than 100 women have been killed in the past six years, the state legislature last Thursday unanimously passed a law making witch-hunting a criminal offense — a much stricter version of laws that already exist in several other states, including Jharkhand. The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, introduced in the state assembly on Monday, mandates a jail term of between three and seven years for branding any person a witch, which may be extended to life imprisonment if the person is driven to commit suicide as a result of being labeled a witch.
“It is a good bill, many innocent people are being killed so we want to pass this bill,” Jadav Chandra Deka, an Assam state legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also represents, said in an interview soon after the bill was tabled in the assembly and three days before it was passed. Deka adds that he expects the law to lead to a reduction in crime.
“The general laws often cannot convict these criminals,” he said, citing the provision of special courts included in the bill that will enable witch-hunting cases to be fast-tracked and made nonbailable. “It will take a shorter time for conviction,” the lawmaker says, “It will be more vigorous.”
However, many experts have their doubts.
“The legislative intervention might help in controlling [to some extent] the instances of witch hunting, but how can a deep-rooted social practice be challenged by law?” Arupjyoti Saikia, a professor of history and head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Assam’s capital, Guwahati, says via email. Saikia explains that many communities in Assam have long practiced witchcraft out of a belief in its healing abilities, but tensions and a “breakdown of faith” among its practitioners over the years has “increased animosity and led to the alienation of ‘bad’ ones.”
Many of the cases — including the two most recent ones mentioned above — underline this fact. Police in the Assamese village where last month’s beheading took place arrested a younger woman who “claims to be a goddess” for inciting the mob to attack the elderly woman. Witch-hunting is also often used as an excuse to settle personal vendettas, with local media reporting motives ranging from property disputes to previous participation in antiliquor campaigns for the lynching of the five women in early August.
“I don’t think legislations would bring to an end these age-old practices,” says Shankar Prasad Bhattacharjee, an advocate at the High Court in Guwahati. “They [people who practice witch-hunting] are so illiterate, so blind in thought that until and unless you make some effort to enlighten them about the laws and the consequences of their actions, I don’t think there will be any effect.” Bhattacharjee tells TIME that the same law-enforcement infrastructure that has been unable to stop the practice thus far cannot hope for significantly different results from a law being passed. “There is no dearth of legislation [in India],” he adds. “The only thing is that we lack a move to educate all those poor people.”
The Assam state government appears cognizant of the gap that needs to be bridged between legislation and enforcement; one assembly member argued last week that the law needs to be more reformative since those who subscribe to beliefs of witchcraft are largely impoverished and uneducated. The bill also mentions awareness programs for the administration and police to undertake in the near future along with civil-society organizations, and prominent activist and anti-witch-hunting crusader Dibajyoti Saikia told the local Assam Tribune newspaper that he would ensure that the law “does not become another piece of legislation that exists only on paper.”
For HRW’s Ganguly, however, the prevalence of witch-hunting even in the 21st century is emblematic of a much more disconcerting trend in India.
“The other side I find even more concerning is this ability to justify vigilante violence,” she says, citing recent instances of mob attacks caused by religious differences or even allegations of petty theft. “How is it that this is allowed to happen, and isn’t there something missing in India’s criminal justice system which is allowing this kind of response to perceived crimes?”
Ganguly says that India often has “excellent legislation” and that is a “good step,” but merely outlawing something often fails to serve as an adequate deterrent.
“There needs to be more effort [in strengthening the administrative structure] as India becomes more ambitious about itself, and it’s becoming increasingly and rightly ambitious about itself,” she says.
“People follow the rule of law when they know that rule of law functions.”