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Witch-hunting in 1857

This comment on Shashank Sinha's opinion on witch-hunts in Chhotanagpur during the 1857 rebellion (EPW, May 12, 2007)argues that although the witch-hunters declared themselves to be motivated by communitarian religious concerns, personal enmity or material gain were often the motives behind the murder of witches and wizards.


not regard the occurrence of deadly dis

Witch-hunting in 1857

eases or other calamities as a natural phenomenon, but as symptoms of a grave disorder in nature, caused by the interven-Ata Mallick tion of some malevolent spirits or by the

This comment on Shashank Sinha’s opinion on witch-hunts in Chhotanagpur during the 1857 rebellion (EPW, May 12, 2007) argues that although the witchhunters declared themselves to be motivated by communitarian religious concerns, personal enmity or material gain were often the motives behind the murder of witches and wizards.

Ata Mallick ( is a research scholar at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.

hashank Sinha in his article ‘1857: Witch-hunts, Adivasis and the Uprising in Chhotanagpur’ (May 12, 2007) argues that in 1857-58, tribals of Chhotanagpur arranged programmes of witch-hunting as a mark of contempt towards the British administration which had, prior to 1857, passed laws banning witch-killing and ‘sokhaism’. To Sinha, witch-hunts represented a mode of resistance against British rule, a resistance that was less direct, yet nonetheless had a great community sanction, since witches invoked great fear and abhorrence in the adivasi world. Sinha, in fact, compares such resistance to the everyday patterns of resistance that James Scott had identified.


However, I would argue that Sinha’s interpretation of witch-hunts against the background of 1857 is only partially true and is based on an idealised understanding of the tribal village community. While not discounting the fact that adivasi society was marked by a greater degree of communal solidarity, it would be erroneous to assume that all tribals within the village necessarily acted in concert against witches. Such a point of view overlooks the victims of witch-hunting and their families. To suggest that witch-hunts in the context of the 1857 rebellion were communally sanctioned, Sinha does not take into account the voice of the silenced minority within the tribal village. This is also dangerous because it assumes that there was no protest against the custom of witch-hunting within the indigenous community itself, and therefore attributes resistance to the practice to colonial agency alone. Documents relating to the trial of witch-hunters during the rebellions of 1857 show that personal enmity often lay behind the massive i ncrease in the incidence of witch-hunting in Chhotanagpur.

Witchcraft was indeed a ritual belief of adivasis of Chhotanagpur. Adivasis did mischievous activities of a witch. In fact, such a view was not restricted to the s antals, but was universal in the tribal world. Witches were identified by witchfinders who were variously known as the ‘khonses’, ‘sokha’, ‘janguru’ or as ‘ojha’ through certain rituals and then he or she was put to death by tribal society.

However, a section of the adivasis had raised questions about witch-hunts even in the 19th century. They did not accept it easily when those identified as witches b elonged to their own kinship group. E G Man’s report, for instance, makes it clear that santals often sought assistance from British authorities on the plea that their daughters/wives had been identified as witches and they therefore needed help.1

Chotrae Deshmanjhi, a participant of the santal ‘hul’ of 1855, similarly testified that during the santal hul a number of santal girls and women were slain by rebels under this pretext. Married women were forcefully detached from their husbands and even the husbands were threatened by the rebels. They were warned that if they did not set free their witch wives, they would be killed. Chotrae Deshmanjhi also testified that, “We all were afraid seeing such things. My two brothers suggested that we should leave the place immediately because we too have women and girls. They might be identified as witches.”2 This suggests that not all the victims identified as witches were necessarily universally regarded as such.

Documents in the government archives also show that identifying and killing witches was in vogue in tribal rebellions even before 1857. In course of the santal rebellion of 1855, for instance, one Ursoo Sonthalin, the wife of Soorjoo Manjee of Ghar Dowar village (in the Santal Parganas) was killed by fellow villagers. In this case, the deceased Ursoo was not tried through traditional ways of witch-finding, but was arbitrarily judged and killed. Her husband was also threatened that he should not reveal the incident to any one.3

September 27, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly



Such incidents did not merely express a nger against British rule, but, as I shall argue, witch-hunts often resulted out of personal enmity, where people took advantage of the chaos and disorder during 1857-58 to settle scores with their rivals and foes. The records of the Bengal judicial department show there were number of cases when not only “witches”, but the e ntire family was killed. This was quite different from the traditional form of witch-hunt where only witches were persecuted. Some examples are given here.

The mutiny trial records preserved in the West Bengal State Archives bring out interesting facts concerning the cases of witch-hunting in Singhbhum following the flight of the British from Chaibasa. A study of the cases demonstrates that certain material interests rather than spiritual beliefs lay behind witch-hunting.

In Bynteria pir of Singhbhum, for example, three kols – Mata, Sarda and Rando – were accused of killing their fellow villager Paraee, his wife and two children. Paraee’s brother had denounced him as a wizard and had hired the three accused to kill Paraee and his wife. At his trial, one of the killers stated that they had taken advantage of the disorder during the mutiny... “We saw ourselves that there was great confusion, fighting and killing and we determined to kill our wizards and witches”, especially as they “…knew that the Sahibs hanged for such work, but we thought there would be no more hanging”.4 The witch-hunter thus affirmed that he did have the intention to eliminate witches and wizards at a time when the sahib’s law was not functioning. However, the motives of the instigator Topayee, the brother of the deceased, were quite different. Topayee confessed that he ordered the killers to murder his brother, who had been identified as a wizard six years earlier, because he feared that the villagers would kill them both.

An even more different motivation was imputed by the daughter of the slain Paraee. While Paraee and his family, including two sons, were put to death, one of his daughters escaped. In the trial she charged the killers thus, “I believe that they killed them, because we were betteroff than most of others and usually had more grain and better crops than any one

Economic & Political Weekly

september 27, 2008

else”. A fellow villager Kunkooa, who was present at the funeral, deposed at the t rials that he was a poor labourer and had been given rice by the killers to burn the bodies because he had overheard the k illers saying that they would take over all of Paraee’s property.5

Personal Enmity

In another case, a kol named Tota was s uspected to be a wizard. He and his three children were killed by his fellow villagers, but his wife and one girl child could escape. It was believed by Captain Manki, the instigator of the witch-hunt, that his first wife had died because of Tota’s sorcery. However, another witness named Damoo reported that Tota had been killed because he was always ready to fight for the Rajah of Singhbhum, which was not liked by his fellow villagers.6

There are case reports of yet another trial of a witch-hunter. This involved the killing of Pillum, a kol woman, who worked at the house of Lagra Kol. Lagra Kol was the headman of the village; Jalla and Singrai were his ryots. One day when Pillum came to assist in cutting Lagra’s rice crop she was killed by Beerul at the instigation of Jalla and Singrai. It was suspected that Pillum had bewitched Lagra who was ill. A Sokha had identified Pillum as a witch. The killer Beerul confessed that he had killed the deceased, but at first refused to do so because he feared he would be punished by the sahibs but the instigators said to him, “the Sahib is fighting with the Rajah and they threatened me; then I consented, and killed her with a stick.” The husband of the deceased woman, however argued that, Beerul often threatened to kill him as well. Another witness, a villager named Goora, testified that Beerul killed Pillum because she trespassed on his paddy field and Beerul was always drunk and half mad and often said he would kill Pillum. Goora said he knew Pillum trespassed on Beerul’s field because he saw the place where she had done it.7

In another case, Magoora Cole, his two little sons and sister Namsee were killed by fellow villagers Urjoon, Libro, Kolaee, Soopaee, Ghunno and Mata because he was identified as a witch. Sopaee who was a moonda argued that his wife and brother’s children had been killed by Magoora. He stated that, “It is just that we should be punished, but it is nearly three years since these murders were committed. The Bur peer was then in a disturbed state, and in all the village it was arranged that all accused of witchcraft should be murdered”.8

These trial reports raise some important questions. First, the study of the trial cases clearly shows that certainly many of the victims of witch-hunts were men not necessarily women. Hence, Sinha’s argument that witch-hunts had brought to light the underlying gender tensions within tribal society may be debated. His argument that witch-hunting had increased because of the widespread belief among adivasis that British rule had come to an end is however borne out by facts. Nevertheless, it has to be stated that witch-hunts of the period were not necessarily motivated by beliefs in the supernatural or by religious beliefs of the adivasis. The trial records clearly demonstrate that although the witch-hunters declared themselves to be motivated by purely communitarian religious concerns, there were sections within the adivasi society who believed that personal enmity or material gain were the actual reasons. Usually, such concerns were articulated by the relatives of the victims, whose voice was silenced through community sanctions. Nonetheless, there was, as Chotrae Desmanjhi’s intervention proves, a small, yet sizeable section within tribal society which was critical of witch-hunting, particularly when directed against its own kith and kin.


1 E G Man, Sonthalia and Sonthals, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, 2003, pp 153-54.

2 Dhirendranath Baske, ‘Chotrae Desmanjhi Reakkatha’, Bortica, January-June 2005, p 13.

3 Judicial Proceedings, Government of Bengal, Nos 292-94, November 6, 1856, Trial of Brijoo Santal vs Government, West Bengal State Archives.

4 Judicial Proceedings, Government of Bengal, Nos 57-58, October 6, 1859, Trial of Mata, Sarda, Rando and Topaey vs Government and Mussamut Rangree , West Bengal State Archives.

5 Ibid.

6 Judicial Proceedings, Government of Bengal, Nos 24-25, November 3, 1859, Trial of Rooteea vs Government and Mussamut Madooee, West Bengal State Archives.

7 Judicial Proceedings, Government of Bengal, Nos 30-31, November 3, 1859, Trial of Beerul vs Government and Daroo, West Bengal State A rchives.

8 Judicial Proceedings, Government of Bengal, Nos 59-60, October 6, 1859, Trial of Urjoon, Libro and others vs Government and Mussamut Moogee, West Bengal State Archives.

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