These Adivasi Women Are Eliminating the Practice of Witch Hunting – One Performance at a Time

Fifty-five hundred tribal women from 100 villages in Gujarat came together to fight several social evils like witch hunting, using folk forms – dance, theatre and singing – to spread awareness about these issues.

The Panchmahaals district of Gujarat is predominantly tribal. History tells us that in the 18th century this region was occupied by the Mughals but was later conquered by General Scindia, a Maratha. The Scindias then became the Maharajas of Gwalior. But after 1818, the Scindias were forced to recognize British sovereignty. And in 1861, Panchmahaals was transferred to the British by the Scindias.

In 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj declared Panchamahaals as one of 250 most backward districts of India.

Crowd at the Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi performance on Feb 15, at Gajapura, Devgadh Baria.

Crowd at the Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi performance on Feb 15, at Gajapura, Devgadh Baria.

The land here is rocky, undulating and not very fertile. Land holdings are extremely small. Agriculture is primarily rain-fed and maize is the staple crop.  But, due to small land holdings, it is very common for adivasis to migrate out in search of work as agricultural labour or labour at construction sites in the nearby cities.

The 2011 census showed that the literacy rate is 70.99%, but the ground reality seems different altogether.

Socially, women here have not been allowed to own or exercise their rights over property or land. The practice of ‘witch hunting’ is very common. Health services are meagre, irregular or absent, forcing the population into the hands of private practitioners or quacks with ever increasing out-of-pocket expenses. The public distribution system is corrupt. Conflicts with the forest department have increased.

The Devgadh Mahila Sangathan, an informal organization, began understanding and tackling some of these issues some time ago – especially the ones impacting women from socio-economically marginalised groups. But the members soon realised their strategy of speaking to people about these issues was not translating into action. They found it difficult to hold the interest of the community in understanding and dealing with the problems facing them.

However, the adivasi women leaders quickly saw that performing troupes from outside the area, which sometimes visited their region, were able to create an impact.

Hitting a woman

A performance to create awareness about violence against women

Primarily, these groups were able to hold the interest and attention of the communities and engage them in a dialogue – the method, if used strategically, would lead to action.

This led to the birth of the performing team – the Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi – under the Devgadh Mahila Sangathan. Simple, normal, shy tribal women, slowly but surely, transformed themselves into performers, adding a new skill to their repertoire.

Today this Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi has nine performers, who understand the nitty-gritty of an issue, write their scripts, act, sing, dance, provide music and later, after the performance, engage the community in a discussion about the problem and problem solving strategies, as well as counsel and support the community to take action.

The performers say that “dramas and songs help set up dialogues with the community and, therefore, change is inevitable.” The Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi has, over the years, addressed some very difficult problems through its performances, going from village to village performing, engaging, counselling and supporting the community.

The dramas and songs have helped the Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi to reach out to a large audience. The performers have meetings, focus on relevant issues and gather field insights. They then script, pen songs, add music, review, and subsequently chalk out a plan for the performances.

One extremely vicious and cruel practice the group encountered is ‘witch hunting.’

A bhuva telling a woman she is a witch, in a performance by Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi

A bhuva telling a woman she is a witch, in a performance by Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi

Many a times, families want to eliminate women who are either widowed or single, in order to get their hands on the property or money bequeathed to them. Local quacks, known as bhuvas, are roped in. The bhuva is respected and feared. He may create a link between the death of a person and the widow/single woman by saying, “so and so person died because this woman is a witch.” This kind of talk spreads quickly and families conspire to get rid of the accused women.

The Devgadh Mahila Sangathan, through its Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi, started to reveal how women were declared witches in order to grab their land, homes and money. The performances were powerful. Many in the audience cried while watching – because they had experienced something similar in their families. These performances also got huge media attention.

The bhuvas now run scared of the Devgadh Mahila Sangathan’s relentless awareness building efforts and they are afraid of police action.

A performance shows how bhuvas perform rituals

A performance shows how bhuvas perform rituals

The local media supports the Sangathan too. The police departments in Panchmahaals and Dahod have roped in Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi to perform in other districts and educate the communities there.

There are other important issues that need to be taken up – food security, health, lack of or poor implementation of government schemes, education, violence, the partisan role of the panch (a local body that settles disputes and other issues), forests and the rights of the tribals, and elections and the election process.

The Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi has 1000 plus performances under its belt.

The lead narrator at a performance

The lead narrator at a performance

The drama on ‘witch hunting’ has seen 100 plus performances. At a district level function, the Adivasi Kalakar Tukdi put up a performance about how tribals are exploited because they lack literacy skills. The District Collector and other senior officials were present. The former was pained and asked the Kalakar Tukdi to stop the performance. The performers asked the District Collector that if the Kalakar Tukdi stopped singing was the situation on the ground going to change?

Similarly, post a performance on the forest and the rights of the tribals, two tribal women were badly beaten up by a forest guard who was drunk. He hit them because the women were grazing their goats in the forest. As a result, one of the women had a broken hand. Over the next 10 days, the Devgadh Mahila Sangathan came together to help the woman. The members first ensured she got proper medical care. Then they wrote to and called upon concerned forest officials to resolve this issue. But none of the officials responded.

Next, the women members – around 300 of them – reached Devgadh Bariya and gheraoed the forest office. They then had a ‘sit in’ at the forest office.  They made sure all the officials were at their tables and then surrounded them, refusing to let them exit the building. The fans and the lights were shut off. No one moved out. The officials were at their tables while the women sat on the floor. This ‘sit in’ went on from 11 am till 9.30 pm. Finally, the guard was brought in, he apologised and said he would never behave violently again. After two days, the Range Forest Officer called the Devgadh Mahila Sangathan and said that many of his officials were ill due to the trauma of the ‘sit in’ and he was going to file a police complaint. The women from Devgadh Mahila Sangathan asked him to go ahead. However, no complaint was lodged.

Recently, the Kalakar Tukdi performers learnt a new skill – puppetry. They plan to interweave this form into their performances to make them more interesting.

The work of the Devgadh Mahila Sangathan and Kalakar Tukdi is supported by ANANDI, Area Networking and Development Initiatives, which has been working with over 10000 rural poor women from four districts of Gujarat since 1995. Forming women’s collectives and working towards changing the nature and direction of systemic forces that marginalize women has been an integral component of ANANDI’s work in Gujarat.

For more details contact: [email protected]; [email protected]

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About the author: Sanjay Joshi is a development worker, focused on enhancing lives of women. He has worked in maternal and child health, water and sanitation, HIV and is currently focusing on sanitation access to women through micro-finance. He is the CEO of Shanti Life India Foundation, a new start up that aims at providing credit access to vulnerable women for sanitation and small businesses.

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