India police seek arrest of 'village quack' for fatal witch hunt

Indian police talk to villagers after five women were killed as they accused of practicing witchcraft in Kanjia village in eastern Jharkhand state on Aug 8, 2015.
Indian police talk to villagers after five women were killed as they accused of practicing witchcraft in Kanjia village in eastern Jharkhand state on Aug 8, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Police in eastern India were searching Sunday for a woman described as a "village quack" and suspected of inciting the mob killing of five other women accused of witchcraft.

Police said the woman is thought to have stirred up an angry mob which lynched the five after blaming them for recent deaths in Kanjia village in Jharkhand state, some 30km from the state capital Ranchi.

"She is some village quack and now absconding. She told the villagers that these five were using black magic and causing deaths of children," Ranchi deputy police chief Arun Kumar Singh told AFP by phone.

"She abetted the whole thing. We are searching for her and will arrest her on the charge of murder." Kumar added that three more in the village had been arrested late Saturday over the killings, bringing the total number detained to 27.

The five women were dragged out of huts by their hair and beaten to death with sticks, knives and stones at around midnight Friday, after being accused of bringing illness and bad luck on the village through witchcraft.

Police said the quack had been brainwashing the villagers about the women "casting evil spells". They said the final attack was triggered by the death of a sick 17-year-old boy last week.

Families of the victims recalled how they watched helplessly as their loved ones, mostly aged between 40 and 55, were hacked and beaten to death by villagers who reportedly chanted "Witch! Witch!" "She wore a wig and the villagers believed the hair had black magic which led to a boy's death," Angi Oraon told the Hindustan Times newspaper's website, referring to her mother's fate.

As she spoke, she cleared the shattered roof tiles broken over her mother's head.

Animiha Khalko, 25, said the mob "rushed in, pulled out my mother and beat her with batons and sticks". "A final blow with a stone to her head and she bled to death as I watched from my room."

Experts say superstitious belief in witchcraft and the occult remains widespread in some poor and remote areas of India. Women are sometimes accused of being witches to settle disputes or grievances.

In some cases women are stripped naked as punishment, burnt alive or driven from their homes and killed.

In July machete-wielding villagers in the northeastern state of Assam dismembered and beheaded a 63-year-old woman after accusing her of being a witch and casting evil spells on her village.

According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, around 2,000 people, mostly women, were killed between 2000 and 2012 on suspicion of practising witchcraft.

Jharkhand accounted for 54 of 160 "witch hunt" murders in 2013, government data showed.

Some Indian states including Jharkhand have introduced special laws to try to curb such crimes.