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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 32, New Delhi, July 24, 2021

Witch Killings of Malda: A Study in ‘Our’ Conspiracy | Sujit Chakraborty

Friday 23 July 2021

by Sujit Chakraborty*

INVESTIGATION

Dozens of women are killed in the tribal belts of North Bengal each year, accused of being ‘witches’. But more than superstition, the story is really about non-tribals marginalising tribals, grabbing their lands and pushing them to the edge of existence

Meghdoot Lodge. One of the best hotels in Malda city in those days, almost bang on the highway.

Eita khoob bhalo,” (This is a nice hotel) Polu said, towering over the diminutive gentleman manning the Reception at the hotel that evening. Polu sounded rather like “Welcome to the Hotel California... such a lovely place, such a lovely place...” Meghdoot obviously held pride of place in his mofussil heart.

Just ten days ago, a woman had been hacked to death, accused of being a witch, or daini, in a village under Gajol subdivision of the north Bengal district of Malda. And there were scores of such women before her.Thatwas my investigation in hand for Sunday Mail, of which I was the top correspondent in Calcutta. Daini hotya. Witch killing. There were stories galore.

Shalaaraa shuor-kheda korey merey fellomagitakay, (they slaughtered her like a pig)”, Polu told me, quite within earshot of the Receptionist, who looked up, horrified: what were we talking about? But given Polu, given his height as well as the height of his reputation as a sort of Robin Hood of Malda, the man decided to keep mum.

It was mid-December of 1990. Being not too far from the Himalayan range above Siliguri, it was quite chilly. Polu and I had packed four bottles of Old Monk rum, and with my luggage — and Polu’s empty hands and even emptier pockets, we were shown into a room on the second floor. It was indeed a nice place.

This was my third visit to Malda, where I had met the redoubtable district Congress leader Polu earlier during a state electoral contest. On the previous two occasions, he had taken me to Sagar Hotel and Raj Hotel, but this time it was Meghdoot Lodge... Polu’s ‘Hotel California’.

Inside the room, I quickly opened a bottle of lord’s true spirit, Old Monk. Polu had already told the room boy to fetch (“within five minutes”, he said) two glass tumblers, an ice box, two plates of Chilli Chicken and a large plate of green salad. “Taumeto dibinaa,” (“Don’t put any tomatoes,” he had said in his gruff voice).

We downed the first two pegs each of the rum swiftly, like two parched horses. We smoked, Polu his Charminar and me my Gold Flake Kings. He opened up the windows to let the smoke out. The cold night-air from the hills rolled into the room. The smoke wafted out.

E-to proti mashey-i hocchhe, (this is happening almost every month), he said, rather cynically: what was the big deal? Why does witch killing need an investigator, he mused, taking a look at me with his eyes that were too close to each other. He dug his thumb nail and picked off a tiny piece of chicken that had got stuck there.

I went to the verandah, looking at the mysteriously deep blue night sky, with so many thousands more of stars peering at me than I could ever see in Calcutta.

When I returned to the room, I took my towel and went for a hot bath. Polu waited for me to return before he went for the third peg. When I returned, Polu said he too wanted to have a bath.

“Just mix the hot and cold water... it is very nice,” I told him.

A minute after he shut the washroom door, I heard him shout: “Dhur shaala, jol goromi hoi nee, shaala jomey gelam.” He had not turned on the mixer and had started the cold water, which was freezing. “Open the hot water tap too,” I shouted to him.

Seconds later, there was another yell: “Ufff....chandi joley gelo mairi.” He had now scalded himself using just the hot water. I saw no option. Polu had never before used geyser water for a bath.

“Open the door,” I told him. He did. And there he stood, looking rather like Michelangelo’s “David” in his glorious nudity, all of six-feet-two. The only difference was David had been clean shaven.

As he stood there, I manipulated the two taps, Hot and Cold, got the water to a comfortable mix, then told him to return under the shower. He did.

Finally he rubbed himself dry and returned, putting his entire attention to pouring the third peg. As I myself did too. And the salad and Chilli Chicken started vanishing fast.

“I have told Shongbaad to get the statistics of the women killed as witches over the last seven years,” Polu told me, even as we lit up again, and then rang the bell. He told the room boy to get us four chapaties and two plates of mutton curry. (“Chorbi chharaa,” not the fatty pieces”) — Polu told the young man in that same gruff voice.

***

Polu said that witch killing is a regular thing in Malda, especially among the tribal Santhal villagers. “Say a whole lot of children fall ill in any village. Or too many chickens die. There is no cure. These people do not trust us, the dikus (the non-tribal people), so they either do not go to our hospitals or even if they are sent there, they run away. They don’t trust us at all,” he said with a degree of disgust that matched the tribals’ disgust with dikus.

This was new to me. Hatred for dikus. None of the reports I had read of witch killings had mentioned this. Our ‘educated’ reporters just saw in such matters tribal superstition and a regular crime report.

“So when so many children fall ill, and some of them die, the Santhal villagers approach the majhi-haram, or the village headman and ask of him what to do. Then the majhi-haram consults an ojha or gunin (a sort of shaman), who identifies a lady from the village as the daini,” Polu continued even as the moon rose higher in the sky.

“Then, one day the villagers gather and hack the woman to death. But what surprises me most is that when the police come and arrest some of the criminals, and they are put into jail, the entire village rallies behind their families and feed them and support them,” Polu said, as we put the now empty plates outside the door of the room for the room boy to take them away. “The villagers believe that by killing the witch, the men had done them a social favour.”

It was a satisfactory night. Six pegs of the best for each of us. Two plates of Chilli Chicken. A plate of green salad (without taumeto, of course). Two plates of mutton curry. Four chapaties. All went down so well that it seemed a sweet night to have a cigarette each lying down on our beds. Then sleep descended on earth, even as the stars shimmered in the heavens.

***

It was just after our bed-tea at around seven the next morning that Shongbad arrived at Meghdoot.

Shongbad was not his original name, but since he had been devoured by the desire to become a newsman, he had filed an affidavit and changed his name to “Shongbad”, or “news” in Bengali.

So the newsman arrived with some paper clippings and some handwritten notes, but they were all over the place; nothing in sequence; nothing put chronologically. Not that Polu had much sense of order either, but he had some rare qualities, like stunning instant recall and an uncanny ability to see things from quite an original angle.

I arranged the papers in order, first chronologically and then thematically, then incidents by sub-divisions. For Shongbad and his vanity, it was to be a big opportunity to be with a Delhi newspaper investigator coming from Calcutta. His secret desire was to be part of the team. But Polu would have none of it.

But by the end of two hours of my working on setting the papers in order, Shongbad got pissed off. He thought I was an empty vessel making much officious noise about getting data right.

But for me, getting data in order meant setting out the unclear from the mundane and ordinary. Investigation is a long drawn process of mostly routine work.

But that routine work alone was the way to see what was truly unusual in the fragments of seemingly same kind of information: cattle dying in a village in Gajol... majhi-haram consulted... has no answer, a gunin is consulted... a person is killed as a witch.

***

“But tell me,” I asked Polu (Shongbad by now was too pissed off and had left “for some urgent work”)... umm... I cannot get this point, Polu. Tell me... okay, a woman is killed... Sumi Soren... killed... Lokhipur village... the cattle were all falling ill in her village... Sumi Soren... 67 years old... now let me see... she is killed, but did that end the series of cattle being killed?”

“May or may not be,” Polu said, pulled on his Charminar, blew a storm of smoke, sipped his tea, and continued: “What I have heard is that if the cattle deaths stop, then the majhi-haram takes the credit for bringing in the expert gunin. But if the deaths continue, the majhi-haram aversthat the witch had ‘already eaten them’ and they died in time. You see, after all, cattle or poultry deaths will end in a village sooner or later. So sooner or later, the majhi-haram will be vindicated.”

But that meant that everything depends on the majhi-haram and his powers. Besides, by that afternoon, a few other striking points came up.

First, though the incidents followed a pattern of either children or poultry or cattle falling sick or even dying, there came up three cases in which the issue plaguing a few of the villages was “smoke coming out from the wells”, or “ponds mysteriously drying up” and so forth.

Second, there was this case of a village in which six people of a family were killed as witch, which broke with the usual pattern of a single woman being killed as a daini. Over the last seven years, there were 32 such cases of withes being slaughtered.

Third, the usual pattern, or as I said, the mundane detail, was of an old woman being killed. “Usually I have seen that very old women who had no one to support or protect them were killed as witches. I don’t know if that is of any interest to you, but this is most often the case,” Polu observed.

I made a mental note of that, for Polu’s observations were invariably of unusual value.

Four bottles of beer had been brought in by the room boy, along with two large plates of salad without taumeto. 

“Yes, that is the case usually,” I agreed. “But then in the village in Gajole, it was a man who was killed as a witch. And out of the six people killed from one family in Lokhimpur, two were men too... Umm... Polu, why were the men killed if daini means a woman as the witch?”

***

Finally, one seminal issue struck me. In all the cases, police action had taken place and one man or a few men were arrested on suspicions of killing a witch after a gunin declared someone as the daini. But in none of the cases, as the newspaper clippings showed, not a single gunin had been arrested, though they were clearly the ones who abetted the crime. Why?

“Hmm...” Polu muttered in a very deep voice.

“See, what I do not understand is that the police come to a village and arrest some of the villagers, but does not arrest the gunin. Why? Then Polu sat upright suddenly, quickly emptying his glass of beer. “But you are right, because the gunins are never villagers. They are not even tribals. They live far from the villages and are caste Hindus, though of lower castes. No one can say they are the persons who identified someone as a witch. The majhi-haram will never reveal who they consulted, who declared someone as a daini, so they are never in the picture, never arrested.”

That floored me. A caste Hindu shaman is consulted by a tribal village headman. That consultation takes place far away from the village, closer to towns but invariably in the outskirts. The gunin discusses the problem with the majhi-haram, identifies someone, usually a support-less and very old lady as the witch, and she is killed.

“I have heard from some senior police officers that these gunins cannot be touched because no one can pinpoint their involvement. My officer friends say that these gunins are spread across north Bengal and Assam. They have two things: first, each has a clearly marked area of operation, as their sole turfs. Besides, they also have a very well-oiled network of informers. They know very well which village in their turf is having a serious problem. So they send news to the village headman that they can help solve the problem. They also mention their charges, usually in the range of three to five thousand rupees.”

Polu said that though these people are never arrested, Bipin Kumar Saha, a very clever police officer had picked up three such persons in three different cases. “Saha had given them a ‘real nice brushing’ and got this information out from them.”

***

For lunch, we went out to Raj Hotel in the heart of Malda’s business district. It had a small eatery opposite the Reception. And though the rooms in the hotel were small and very uninviting, the lunch they served was delectable. Good quality boiled rice, moong daal¸ crispy fried potatoes, a spicy vegetable curry and superb quality fish curry.

After lunch, I returned to Meghdoot alone, but Polu went home in the main English Bazaar area. We had discussed that Polu would need to be with me for the next few days and so some changes of clothes were a must.

But Polu being one of the most loved young men in Malda, it was not before eight in the evening that he reached back, having concluded his meetings at his theatre club, helped his distant aunt with her vegetable shopping, checked out on an old, neighbourhood-uncle admitted to the district hospital, and other such duties.

We discussed the issues already discussed during the morning and afternoon, but nothing new emerged. The second bottle of rum was drying up. The fried liver-curry was still steaming when the room boy brought it to their room. Polu asked me to sing a few songs, and I readily got into the mood, but before that, he had called up a friend and hired his car for the next day.

***

The next morning, both of us had early baths and a breakfast of fried eggs, finger chips, bread, butter and coffee. I also got packed some chicken sandwiches and four bottles of water for the day. We had no idea of when we might return to the hotel, and we had no intention of rushing back just to have lunch.

That was the pattern for the next two days. Gajole, Ratua, Harishchandrapur, Bamongola, Chanchol... from this to that tribal village, whichever was mentioned in newspaper clippings or police lists of crime as having witnessed witch killing. Our Ambassador car would start spruced up in the morning and return dust-laden in the late afternoons.

The tribal are very poor people today, though at one time they had everything: the forests, the livestock, farmlands, pastures adjacent to their villages, the forest animals for meat, herbs and plants as medicines the Santhals knew well and used to cure their illnesses.

But gradually, the dikus, that is, we made our entrée. We made them pawn their lands, though initially they were told that it would be returned if they returned the money they loaned from us. But as Polu said, gradually, we dikus invented a cacodemonic new ploy: khai-khalasi. We explained to the simple-hearted Santhals that they can take the money for their land, but that would be khai-khalaas, or ‘eat-and-forget’. You take the money and ‘eat’ it, we take your land, and you forget it.

***

The highly demeaning and illegal marginalisation of these tribals had been a continuous process since the middle of 19th century. Historically, after the series of deaths of old, legendary tribal leaders, like Sidhu-Kanhu Murmu of Santhals and Birsa Munda, and after the defeat of their rebellions against the British Raj, the tribal populace was devoid of quality leaders. In the hands of us, the dikus, they practically surrendered their best lands and continuously moved into harsher and tougher marginal terrains. Gone were their farmlands, gone were their forests, their benign living conditions, gone were their medicinal plants. And they were exposed to illnesses they had never known.

Because we dikus cheated them, they had no faith in our schools,or our hospitals; they would not go to either. So they remained illiterate, superstitious and devoid of any systematic healthcare.

Now their villages were hardly livable. They still maintained their lovely mud huts painted with designs in red, yellow and black, all organic colours from local soil and mud and flowers. Their native personal hygiene, however, could not be ensured in the absence of flowing waters.

And sheer poverty meant that when their children, babies really, cried for food, the tribal parent would give them sips of mahua. The intoxicant would soon put the little ones to sleep. Food? The huge bellies of the kids spoke of the horrors of undernourishment.

Health crises were but expected in such villages. And to end serial illness, they had to kill the witches. But was it all so simple? Just superstition leading to murder of some women as witches? Why did then Matal Soren kill his brother in his village in Gajole, though he was a man?

***

One day in our tour, we met Ashwini Hembrom, a well-known Santhal intellectual. Clad in clean dhoti-kurta, with his hair tied into a bun on top of his head, and a cloth bag slung across his left shoulder, we just chanced upon him. After introduction, I asked him whether he believes in daini. Has he ever seen one?

“You are a Hindu. Have you seen Devi Durga?” he asked me in return. I obviously had not. “So why do you believe in her? Just in the same way, I have never seen a bonga but I know it is there.” Then, Hembrom said something that made a lot of sense. “These are the spirits and they can take possession of anyone. If it is an evil spirit, it can cause destruction. But if a positive spirit takes hold of you, it will make you do almost unthinkably powerful things for the good of all.” So why do the evil spirits only take possession of old women, I asked. But Ashwini Hembrom dismissed the idea: “It can take possession of anyone, an old woman or a young man. Even you.”

So was that the case with Matal Soren? We went to his village. The car could take us only up to a kilometer of his village. Then Polu and I walked. Sitting on the mud floor of his neatly painted open verandah was Matal Soren. It had been barely ten days since he had been released from jail on bail.

It was difficult talking to him. First, he was already ‘spiritually elevated’ even at 11 in the morning. Besides, he spoke in his tongue, with smatterings of broken Bengali which, unfortunately, was the only language we could speak to him in.

He admitted that he had killed his brother because a gunin, Kamala Dashi, had told him that his brother was ‘eating up’ all the poultry in the village.

Matal Soren was the majhi-haram or village headman. So, he said, when the villagers who had elected him — for Santhal polity is democratic — as majhi-haram and demanded a solution, he had to find the root of the problem. So, he had contacted Kamala Dashi, whose thaan (divine seat) is next to the Malda city railway crossing, and she had told him it was his brother who was the witch.

“So the villagers wanted me to tell them what to do. And we had to kill him,” Matal Soren said. But I soon realised that he had gone so far to say this because he was ‘spiritually elevated’ on mahua since morning. And then I felt something strange.

As he sat speaking, a crowd had started gathering around us. Gradually, the men had moved to touching distance of Polu and me. I sensed a threat. The men were on all three sides of us. Just our rear was still open. I indicated to Polu and he too sensed the threat. So without turning our backs, we started retreating slowly. Till we reached the border of the village. Then we ran, just before the crowd could pounce on us. Matal Soren had blabbered too much!

We were not near our car yet, but what saved us was that a crowd of Muslims from the next village, who had been (though we did not know) keeping an eye on us, came and surrounded us. And seeing them, Matal’s men backed off. We were saved by the bell! As we ran towards the car, we saw that the Muslim men were armed with bows and arrows. Just in case the Santhals attacked us.

“They would have killed you. That is why they were surrounding you gradually. Are you mad to have gone there? Why did you go?”

Polu spoke in his local Malda dialect of Bengali: “Daini case.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said the leader of our Muslim saviours. “Matal Soren killed his brother because many children had been falling ill in the village, and Matal’s brother, ‘either you solves the problem, or I shall become the majhi-haram’. As simple as that.”

***

We returned to the hotel earlier than had been usual over the past few days. My mind was playing with some idea, though I could not put my fingers on it firmly. And though over the last few days I had refused Polu any beer before we returned back to base, that afternoon, I felt that we were at the end of our work, and I poured a very stiff peg of rum. Then I had a bath and wiped off two more pegs.

Just about then, it all fell in place.

“It is not about just killing women as witches, Polu,” I said. “A tribal community which we, the dikus,have constantly pushed to the edges of existence is bound to have all sorts of disease outbreaks... wells belching smoke, cattle or poultry dying, children falling sick... ponds drying up.

“So what do the village people do? They approach the majhi-haram and demand a solution. After all, it is they who had elected him, so he has to solve their problems, otherwise the villagers will elect another majhi-haram... Polu...” I took a long drag on my Gold Flake Kings.

Banchot chheley, praya mere enechhish... tarpor? Mathai ki ghurchhe?” (You bastard, you are almost there, so what’s churning in your mind?) Polu said with a startled and yet affectionate smile.

“So... they demand an answer which he does not have, and yet, he knows he bloody well have that answer otherwise... see the game?” Polu grunted something like “ungh!” and poured me — and himself — the fourth large peg of Old Monk.

So. A village level health and environmental crisis crops up, at the root of which lay non-tribal greed and diabolism of grabbing rich, fertile tribal land. The villagers want an answer from their democratically elected village headman. The headman has no answer and comes under threat of being replaced.

“Fine, and then what?” Polu asked me.

“And in the meanwhile the local gunin has been informed through her network. She knows which village is in problem, who is the headman and what kind of money he can spend. So she sends word to the headman that she can help. To the majhi-haram, that means solve his problem of being dethroned.The latter tells his village people he will go to meet a gunin and come back with an answer.

That answer could be Sumi Soren, Jodu Hembrom or Matal Soren’s brother. That answer could be an entire family of six dainis, all threats to the village power equilibrium and vested interest of a small coterie of the majhi-haram and his cronies.

***

The next morning, we hired a tanga — a horse-cart instead of a car. We wanted Kamala Dashi to believe our story, and a car would make her suspicious. We reached the thaan of Kamala Dashi just adjacent to the railway crossing outside Malda Town. “You stay in the tanga,” I told Polu. “Don’t move at all unless I shout for help.” Polu cursed me under his breath but let me go.

I reached the small Kali temple of Kamala Dashi. She wasn’t there yet. But shortly she reached after having had her bath. I told her that I am coming from Calcutta because I have developed a peculiar problem of puking blood every morning. Sometimes even twice in a morning.

“All the doctors I have consulted offer no answer, Maa. But I have a friend in Malda who said you could solve my problem.”

The old lady flashed me a crooked smile: “I had been waiting for you. I knew you are coming today. But for all this, I have to do a lot of work, and in any case I have to awaken Maa Kali... how much money do you have?”

“You see Maa, I have enough money, but I did not know how much you would need, so right now I just have 300 rupees in my pocket.”

“Give it,” she commanded.

Then she drew a figure on the mud courtyard of the Kali Temple. Then with a peacock feather, which she took out from the temple, she did some imaginary calculations.

I could sense Polu getting edgy sitting in the tanga. But Kamala Dashi was already telling me: “Ekta kalo chheyan dekhi jay, shada moton chul burir chheyan, (I see adark shadow, black shadow of an old woman with white hair.) The image matched my old grandmother’s!

But then she started chanting something and swaying slightly from side to side, as if possessed. She stopped abruptly and said many items for the ritual would be needed. So I would have to bring Rs 3,000 the next morning at 4.15 am. Before day break. “Na holey Maa Kali jagbey na (Otherwise Maa Kali won’t be awoken.”)

“But what if I puke again the tomorrow morning? Then I would not be able to come,” I asked as if already in total surrender.

Shey ami theek korey debo... tui bosh,” (Oh, I will manage that for tomorrow, you just wait here.)

Kamala Dashi went inside the temple and returned with a small packet.

She then lit a small fire on the mud floor of the temple courtyard.

I started hearing the hooves of the horse growing louder. Polu was coming.

And then Kamala Dashi chucked a handful of some dust from the packet into the fire.

As the dust started billowing dense, black fumes, I felt Polu’s angry slap land solidly on my right cheek. “Shalaa pagol!” (You crazy bum)

Polu pulled me up by my shoulder and hauled me on to the cart, and the tanga rapidly vanished across the turn on the road beyond Malda railway crossing.

This story is dedicated to Polu, late Sumit Chatterjee of Malda, one of my dearest friends who I lost to diabetes a few years ago. 

*(The writer is a former investigative journalist, currently author of a few stray books. All details in the report are based on facts. Email: sujitnti1[at]gmail.com)

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