By Manleen Bawa
A strange paranoia due to reports of unusual criminal activity has gripped the states of Northern India. The mysterious braid-chopping cases reported in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh have led to the emergence of fanatic theories trying to explain this perplexing turn of events. In such cases, women experiencing headaches, fainting spells, unconsciousness or faint, wake up and find their hair chopped off. From black magic to a creature analogous to the Monkey Man, people have attributed a plethora of wide-ranging supernatural reasons to these inexplicable happenings.
But when collective fear claims an innocent life, the situation needs to be handled with urgency.
Witch hunt to quell
Over the centuries, the historical tradition of witch hunting has targeted women in the garb of belief, supernatural powers, and ritualistic superstition. This gruesome practice has been kept in the margins of deliberation in spite of the fact that in every three days, there is one case of ‘witch hunting’ reported. Labelling a woman as a ‘witch’ is patriarchy’s weapon to curb the potential threat.
Since most ‘witchcraft’ related deaths have an ulterior motive such as property disputes or revenge, among others, brandishing women as ‘witches’ becomes an easy way to rationalise and achieve those goals without facing social ostracisation. The deviant woman figure is almost immediately identified as a chudhail because women cannot assume power in a male dominated society without disturbing the status-quo.
Justifying the unknown through superstition
Often called the ‘land of snake charmers’, India has a strong connection with superstition since it is embedded in the web of religion and traditions. Receiving a social sanction for any action prescribed by the sacred is the simplest of tasks in our country. The almost hypnotic effect of arbitrary and utterly untenable superstitions is reflected in mob mentality.
The case of Maan Devi
Maan Devi, a 65-year-old Dalit woman, was brutally murdered on the grounds of mere suspicion by a hostile village mob in Agra’s Mutnai village dominated by upper-caste Hindus. She had lost her way after relieving herself, made a wrong turn, and consequently lost her life. She was accused of being a ‘witch’ by the people of the village. Incidents of hair-chopping had previously been reported in Muntai and the villagers decided to carry out a public ‘witch-hunt.’
What ensued with Maan Devi was a cumulative expression of caste, class, and gender oppression. These three social systems collectively became the reason of her victimisation. Lying on the fringes of society, Devi, as a poor Dalit woman, was an easy target for the villagers. This unfathomable incident is not only about how the marginalised are the most vulnerable but also how easy it is for the dominant male to justify outrageous actions.
‘Go with the flow’
What is most astounding is the amount of violence which is considered acceptable in our society. An innocent woman is lynched by a mob for something she did not do and the story is readily digested by the masses. Neighbours shut their doors, turn deaf to hysteric pleas and silently watch a fellow human being get murdered. A horrifying gory killing is a common occurrence and it does not shake our consciousness as a society.
What might have started out as a non-malicious doing, though still a criminal act, certainly did not warrant a public execution.
As we progress further into the 21st century, the absurdity of everyday situations impinges upon us where hapless individuals are brainwashed into developing a mob mentality. We inhabit a bystander world where people are mercilessly killed because they may or may not have chopped off someone’s hair, killed for a crime they did not commit.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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