By Nirmal Mangar
In a bizarre incident of ‘witch-hunting’, a 77-year-old woman was physically abused by three people. This took place on May 8 at a Melli, a small town in South Sikkim. Bal Kumari Sharma, a widow was beaten up by her neighbours who alleging her of practising witch craft.
This is the first time that such an occurrence happened and was reported in Sikkim, which led to the creation of much hullabaloo among the public and left many burning in rage.
Sikkim Chronicle travelled to the south district and carried out an in-depth investigation on the first of its kind witch-hunting incident. According to a senior police officer in Gangtok, no such case of witch-hunting has been reported before in Sikkim.
As per the son of the victim, Arjun Kumar Sharma, it was at around 9pm that the family was preparing to sleep after dinner when three people namely, Laxmi Pradhan, Durga Pradhan and Arun Pradhan forcefully entered the house and started abusing the old woman.
“I could not understand what was happening because they broke the door and suddenly entered the room where my mother was sleeping. All three started verbally abusing and alleged that she practises witchcraft,” said the son.
The three individuals are siblings and are their neighbour’s children.
Before she could understand what was happening, Bal Kumari was asked to sit on the bed with folded hands.
“My mother who already is a diabetic patient was crying and pleading with them not to beat her. Before I could reach to them, I and my wife were thrown out of my own house by their father, TB Pradhan. I was helpless!” he added.
The family did not allow anyone to enter the house, it was informed.
NEIGHBOUR’S EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT
Pushpa Lama, who is an immediate neighbour of Bal Kumari Sharma, while speaking with Sikkim Chronicle said that she was shocked and appalled to see such an incident happening in her home town.
“We heard a loud cry of the woman seeking help. I asked my son to go out and see what was happening. He came back and informed me that the old woman is being harassed by three people. I immediately reached outside the house but we were not allowed to enter inside by TB Pradhan and his other family members saying that there is a ritual being performed inside and no one should disturb the proceedings,” said Lama.
A phone call was made to the local police station informing of the incident by the son, Arjun Kumar Sharma.
The family members of the victim alleged that it took almost an hour for the police to reach their house when the information was given immediately by the son of the victim.
“The police station is just a five minutes walk from our house but it almost took one hour for them to reach here for reasons best known to them,” said Arjun Kumar Sharma.
Also, an allegation was raised against the doctor of a Melli Primary Health Centre who did not turn up when the lady was taken for the needed treatment.
Sikkim Chronicle team visited both the police station and primary health centre to carry out a detailed investigation.
At the primary health centre, the doctor against whom the accusation was made was out of town to attend a meeting.
A senior nurse, Rekha Tamang, informed that she attended the patient when brought to the primary health centre.
“The doctor was in her resident quarter when the victim was brought for the treatment. Since there were no major injuries I told the doctor not to come as I knew it was a case which needed some first aid treatment because the nature of injuries was not much serious,” said Tamang.
Meanwhile the SHO of Melli Police station, Mingyur Nadik Bhutia said that it took some time for the police to reach the house as the policemen in duty needed to get ready.
“There was also a need for a woman police officer to accompany. Since she was to be called from home it took some time,” he added.
Meanwhile, no FIR was lodged except a General Diary, it was learnt. Next day on May 9, the woman was taken to the district hospital at Namchi for the treatment. She was advised bed rest.
The sources at the hospital informed that there were no such major injuries on the woman which would lead her being admitted in the hospital.
The family members also met with the South District Superintendent of Police, Manish Verma informing of the incident.The SP directed the SHO to convert the General Dairy into FIR and take the necessary action.
SOCIAL MEDIA UPROAR
Soon after Sikkim Chronicle uploaded the video news on its Facebook and YouTube portals with the detailed information on the incident, people started criticizing the act. Our inbox was flooded with messages supporting the victim woman and seeking justice for her.
Prashant Chettri writes, “This kind of act is totally unacceptable in the society. It is a sheer case of blind faith which needs immediate intervention from all sections of the society. This kind of mentality should not be encouraged”.
Sangay Tenzing Sherpa writes, “Thorough investigation should be undertaken by the concerned authorities. Justice should be provided as soon as possible and keeping in mind such instances of orthodox paranoia do not occur in the mere future.”
Sikkim Chronicle interacted with few people of the surrounding neighborhood. It was learnt that this kind of incident was never reported before in the locality.
“The family is humble and has a good rapport with the people. The accused family is quite rich and influential in the town”, informed a neighbour requesting anonymity.
Police on after receiving a strict direction from the Superintendent of Police, Manish Verma registered a case against the three persons, Laxmi, Durga and Arun Pradhan under three different sections- 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 447 (criminal trespass) and 34 (crime with common intention).
Arun was arrested and released on bail since all the sections put up by the police were bailable. Meanwhile,the other two girls were admitted in the government hospital in Gangtok stating that their mental condition was unstable.
“Police cannot arrest if anyone is admitted in the hospital. The arrest would be done based on the medical clearance from the doctor who is treating the patient”, said a senior police officer.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, the family members said that police is reluctant to book the perpetrators on relevant sections of IPC because TB Pradhan himself is working in the Special branch under the Police Department.
However, the police said that there is no such law of anti witch craft in the state of Sikkim to book the accused.“The case has been lodged accordingly and as per the relevant sections of Indian Penal Code”, said the police at Melli Police Station.
On May 15, one of the accused, Laxmi Pradhan was arrested by police after she was discharged from the hospital. She along with her sister, Durga was admitted in the psychiatric ward of STNM hospital in Gangtok.
Durga Pradhan was working in UAE for the last five years and had just returned home on May 5, three days prior to the incident.
“My daughter was fine before she moved to UAE to work in a private company. She later developed a peculiar illness of mood swings. She would stare at a screen for hours making a video call. It was us who insisted her that she should return home,” said the father, TB Pradhan.
NO ANTI WITCH HUNTING LAW IN SIKKIM.
Senior Human Rights Lawyer of Sikkim, Dr Doma Bhutia said witch-hunting is only an excuse to do atrocities against a woman in the society.
“This kind of atrocity is not only prevalent in India but my research says that even in Europe when any woman stood or speak against the Church they were subject to public humiliation accusing witch-hunting”, she said.
She added, “It is an irony that in India a woman is worshipped as goddess and in the other hand they are also accused of being a witch. There is a serious need to think on it as to why it is happening”, said Dr Doma.
She said only the vulnerable sections of the society are subjected to such kind of atrocities.
She added, “either the victim who is accused of witch-hunting practise is a widow, financially weak, poor or from the lower strata of the society who cannot defend themselves”.
The senior lawyer said in most of the cases reported outside Sikkim it is the land dispute which leads people to put such allegations on a woman.
Speaking on the incident reported in Melli in South Sikkim, Dr Doma Bhutia said as per the Supreme Court guidelines the police should give priority to the case related with woman and children
“In Sikkim it is very sad to see that the police complaint of woman is only taken up seriously if she is politically connected, powerful or influential. I get many complaints from a woman especially saying that their complaint was taken up as only General diary and not FIR in many police stations in Sikkim”, said Doma Bhutia.
Speaking on the legislation on anti witch hunting she informed that there is no Central Legislation on anti-witch-hunting but the case of outraging modesty, attempt to murder can be put against the perpetrators. Other states like Bihar have Prevention of Witch Dayan Act, Jharkhand has anti-witch-hunting Act 2001, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh has already adopted the legislation.
“It is very important that Sikkim now think on framing legislation to address this issue,” she stated.
Sharply criticizing the state government she said, “We make tall claims of women empowerment but only sections of woman doing good in society is not a complete definition of women empowerment but to give justice to the woman on atrocities which they are facing is a real women empowerment”.
SOCIAL JUSTICE FOR BAL KUMARI SHARMA
On May 19, the civil society members of Melli in South Sikkim, the home town of Bal Kumari Sharma organized a function to felicitate her for standing up firm in fighting the stigma and atrocity.
A felicitation committee headed by a senior citizen Chabilal Sapkota was formed after series of meeting.
Bal Kumari Sharma was assured that the justice would be given to her.
“The justice doesn’t come only from the court, it should also come from the society too. The family members were worried thinking that how would the society perceive her after the incident but we want to assure that she would be given same respect which she deserve” said the President of the Committee, Chabilal Sharma.
Uma Sharma, an elderly woman who attended the felicitation program said, “I am really upset as this incident has brought a bad name to our place but I am also happy that the residents in one voice condemned the incident and organized this function to say that we stand with the victim. We strongly oppose such act of superstitious belief”
BAL KUMARI SHARMA SPEAKS
Talking with Sikkim Chronicle, the victim Bal Kumari Sharma said that no one can ever feel as what emotions she went through.
“I don’t know and I am still wondering as why I had to go through this emotional ride. As far as I know I have never done anything wrong to anyone. I was humiliated and put to public shame yet I am trying to be strong not for me but for my family and society”, she added as she lay on her bed.
The victim is a mother of six children. Durga Rai, one of the daughters said that the family is waiting for justice. “Justice is what we need, let this incident not be repeated to any family” said Durga.
DK Lepcha, a President of Arithang Women Development Society, an NGO based in Gangtok said that her organization would take up an initiative to educate and spread awareness on the issue.
Lepcha said, “This case is an eye-opener for us to realise that there is more awareness and sensitization needed to educate our people on the topic. We will hold a meeting soon to discuss this and shall take up an initiative to organize meeting which would address this issue seriously.”
ROLE OF A MEDIA
A senior journalist Amber Gurung pointed out that the media should also play an important role in raising awareness on cultural dogmas.
“There may be many incidents of such nature happening in different parts of state which goes unnoticed, unreported in the media. The press can play a vital role in educating people by writing articles, holding discussions and spreading more awareness on the topic”, he added.
The SHO of Melli Police Station, Mingyur Nadik Bhutia informed Sikkim Chronicle that the case is still under investigation. He said the charge sheet would be filed once the investigation is over.
Meanwhile, Arun and Lamxi Pradhan are on bail and the other accused Durga is still under treatment at government hospital in Gangtok.