NEW DELHI/PATNA, India (REUTERS) - India must do more to tackle the practice of witch-branding among tribal communities, activists said on Monday following the murder of five women accused of sorcery.
The victims, aged 35 to 52, were dragged out of their rural homes in the eastern state of Jharkhand in the early hours of Saturday and beaten and stabbed to death by villagers who accused them of killing a youth.
Police have arrested 27 people following the attack, but activists said a string of similarly horrific killings this year shows an urgent need to tackle the root causes of the practice and enforce the law.
"Many of these murders are linked to superstitious beliefs, but they are also due to economic reasons where people want to take the woman's land or property," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a women's rights organisation in New Delhi.
"These crimes keep happening because the authorities have not done enough to create awareness. They don't take them seriously and as a result, there are few prosecutions and convictions."
In the last year there have been numerous reports of women being branded witches in villages across central, eastern and northeastern states. Government data shows there were 160 murders linked to witch hunts in 2013, against 119 the previous year.
Activists say figures are likely to be much higher as many cases go unreported, with witnesses fearing revenge attacks or the possibility of being ostracised if they speak up.
Despite a slew of pro-poor policies, India's economic boom has largely bypassed its indigenous population, who make up more than 8 per cent of the country's 1.2 billion population.
Many inhabit remote villages, eking out a living from farming, cattle rearing and selling forest produce.
Neglect by the authorities, a Maoist insurgency in the country's central tribal belt and civil conflict in the northeastern region have further margnialised these communities.
Campaigners say a combination of patriarchy, poverty, a lack of education and poor law enforcement allows witch-branding to continue.
Women can be accused of witchcraft following illnesses, deaths or poor crops. But activists say there is often a motive behind the murders such as a dispute or an intention to acquire the woman's land or other assets.
Police said Saturday's murders occurred in the village of Kanjia, 40 km from the state capital Ranchi, when an angry mob stormed into the women's mud homes.
They stripped them and beat them with wooden sticks, metal rods and stabbed them with spears and swords, accusing them of being behind the death of a severely jaundiced 17-year-old boy who had died the week before.
The women's bodies were put into large jute bags and dumped outside the village, police said.
"Their faces were also defaced, apparently by stones,"Jharkhand police spokesman S.N. Pradhan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Ranchi. "Almost the entire village was involved in the massacre."
There were 54 murders related to witch-branding in Jharkhand in 2013, more than in any other state. There have also been reports of witch-branding in Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, and Chhattisgarh.
Over the last year, entire families have been butchered in the middle of the night, and women have being stripped, tortured, paraded naked, forced to eat faeces, beaten to death or burnt alive after being accused of sorcery.
Last month, a couple and four of their children were hacked to death in the eastern state of Odisha by villagers who accused them of practising witchcraft and making their children sick.
The same month, a 63-year-old woman in the northeastern state of Assam was branded a witch by a mob who dragged her out of her home, stripped and beheaded her.
"The thing I find most appalling is this mob violence where people are taking the law into their own hands and think they can go around and lynch women. It's like witch burning in medieval England," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "It shows that there is a complete breakdown of the rule of law in many parts of the country, where people act with a sense of impunity and police are reluctant to file complaints and the judicial process is laborious." Government officials at both central and state level said they planned to launch public awareness campaigns in high risk areas and would ensure the deaths of the five women were investigated and the accused brought to trial quickly.
India's tribal affairs minister, Jual Oram, said he was"very upset" by the recent killings related to witch-branding and that his ministry was considering action to increase awareness among tribal communities.
"We can prevent such incidents only if we can educate people," he said.