Ostracised over witchcraft claims, a Santhal family’s quest for home | Kolkata - Hindustan Times
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Ostracised over witchcraft claims, a Santhal family’s quest for home

By, Bolpur
May 03, 2023 04:59 PM IST

A Santhal family in Bengal's Birbhum has been wandering from village to village for three years after being accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their home.

Jyethu Hansda and his wife, Jasomoti, looked nervously around the empty community hall in the heart of the bustling town of Bolpur in Bengal’s Birbhum district on April 27. It is all they can call a home for now.

The Hansda family at the Bolpur community hall. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
The Hansda family at the Bolpur community hall. (HT Photo)

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“We are wandering from one tribal village to another for three years, looking for a home. Nobody gave us land to settle down. Provided by government officers on April 24, this hall is our shelter now. But, for how long?” Jyethu, 50, the head of the Santhal family, said.

The holes in his white vest, the cheap slippers left in a corner and some items of daily use scattered on the floor serve as tell-tale marks of poverty.

Of the 12 members, Jyethu’s four minor grandchildren, two girls and two boys, have not seen a school ever since the family was ostracized and thrown out of their home in the Bolpur block area.

“We are residents of Munikundu. It is a hamlet of around 200 people. In August 2020, the village headman accused my mother of practising witchcraft because she used to worship idols. Holding a kangaroo court in the presence of a witch doctor they alleged she was responsible for the death of a villager and some livestock. We were thrown out of the village,” said Uday Hansda, 37, Jyethu and Jasomoti’s eldest son.

And the news spread.

“Many Santhal women worship idols these days instead of following the Sarna. How can blind faith drive people to such madness in this modern age? Munikundu residents misled people in other villages to ensure that we don’t get a place to stay,” Uday added.

In Bengal, a number of tribal groups want the Sarna, which is quite distinct from Hinduism, to be recognized by the Constitution as a separate religion. Numerous agitations have already taken place on this issue.

Followers of Sarna worship nature instead of idols. In 2020, the Jharkhand assembly passed a special resolution and sent it to the Centre, seeking a separate religion code for the tribal population.

Sumiram Hansda, 24, Jyethu’s youngest son, said: “In many tribal villages, rivalry over property or land are often found to be the real reason behind ostracism. But it is not applicable in our case. We don’t own any land or money. My brothers and I worked on the fields for other people to run our families.”

Sumiram is the only one in the family who went to a school but he dropped out after class 7.

“An extra hand on the field means some more money at the end of the day,” he said.

“The Trinamool Congress (TMC) controlled panchayat in our area held mediatory talks with Munikundu residents several times but failed. Tribal bodies tried their best to help us return home. They failed too. Government officers visited our village as well,” Sumiram added.

Bengal’s Scheduled Tribe (ST) population stood at 5.29 million during the 2011 census, accounting for about 5.8% of the total population. The major chunk of the tribal population lives in West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and Birbhum districts.

Uday said Ayan Nath, the sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Bolpur, has been trying to help his family.

“These are very sensitive cases. The administration cannot use force to rehabilitate this family because the villagers will pounce on them once the police leave. The issue can be solved only through talks. We are taking the help of tribal leaders and experts who understand the psyche of these people,” Nath said.

Sekhar Sain, the sub-divisional officer (SDO), is supervising the talks between mediators and the Munikundu headmen.

Sain said: “There was a time when declaring someone a witch or even killing that person was very common in the tribal belts. But things changed over the years. The ostracism of the Hansda family is quite unique because there is no politics or property related dispute involved. We found that one of the headmen, Sunil Murmu, took the lead in driving the Hansdas out.”

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Sain organised mediatory talks on April 26 and 29.

“The SDO and BDO both went to our village on Saturday. The villagers are still adamant. They asked for time to discuss the issue among themselves. We are still at the community hall,” Uday said on Sunday.

HT tried to contact Sunil Murmu but he could not be reached for comment.

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