The Indian television witch hunt

Not being a TV watcher, I had not seen any promos of this new serial, called Nazar (Evil Eye). I hadn’t seen the hoardings splashed over the city either. Fellow journalist Alaka Sahani’s post on Facebook, brought this to my notice. “Eerily long pleated hair. Check. Pointy long nails. Check. Upturned feet (ulta paon). Check. Indian television is all set to welcome a daayan/chudail/witch… Slow clap for Indian television please for churning out super regressive content and making witches out of women. This show, especially, seems to have the potential of triggering superstition in a society where women in rural areas are still lynched and murdered on the suspicion that they are ‘witches’.”

It is indeed a worrying thought. There is a whole lot of Indian folklore about daayans and chudails, and most of it triggers emotional responses among the superstitious, because they are supposed to be either women disappointed in love, who take revenge against the offending male in gruesome ways, or childless women, who kidnap and sacrifice children. It is easy to see why women who are old or alone — especially, if they own property — can be targeted as witches and killed, because hate can so easily be whipped up, more so these days.

Indian television, that has the power to change mindsets, is misusing it to take the country back centuries, with this kind of regressive programming. It started with Ekta Kapoor’s saas-bahu sagas, in which women did nothing but plot and scheme against one another and the men were placed on a pedestal, to be obeyed, served and worshipped. You seldom, or never, see a domestic scene in a serial in which men are doing any household chore. They snap their fingers for tea and meals, the women bicker in the kitchen, and stand behind the men and their mothers lording it over the dining table. In several serials, women are fighting over a husband, never mind the divorce and bigamy laws in the country!

As small town India with its predominantly female viewership was hooked to these soaps, the content started getting more regressive pulling out ancient customs and rituals (many have women fasting or torturing themselves) discarded by the educated and rational, and pushing women back into the kitchen. When audiences started getting bored of this domestic discord, all stops were pulled out to present strange versions of mythology, and  lot of rubbishy supernatural tales about naagins and evil powers—many of them female to be crushed by righteous men, and some women with the help of the gods, with chanting and ringing bells in the background.

Any move to control the content of Indian television brings out fears of censorship and so a medium with such a wide reach goes unchecked. When there is an uproar, as there was when a serial, Pehredaar Piya Ki, about a young woman married to a male child, it was pulled off air (no such problems when older men marry young girls!), but there hasn’t been enough mainstream coverage or debate over the serials peddling ignorance, superstition and misogyny to the masses. Profit-grubbing production companies and TRP-chasing channels are obviously not concerned about the toxicity they spread through their serials.

As late as January this year, the website Pulitzercentre.org stated, “The death of a child, a disease outbreak in a village, bad weather, a meagre harvest. These are some of the reasons women in India are accused of sorcery, branded as witches, and hunted. Public health and development failures thus become exacerbated by forces of patriarchy, misogyny, and the caste system. Some states have outlawed witch hunts, but the practice continues with thousands of women hunted each year; hundreds are tortured and murdered.”

It’s not just in India, in Western folklore too, old, solitary or rebellious women were branded as witches and executed. The infamous Salem witch hunts in the US are a blot on any civilised society. According to history.com, “Belief in the supernatural, and specifically in the devil’s practice of giving certain humans (witches) the power to harm others in return for their loyalty, had emerged in Europe as early as the 14th century, and was widespread in colonial New England. In addition, the harsh realities of life in the rural Puritan community of Salem village at the time included the after-effects of a British war with France in the American colonies in 1689, a recent smallpox epidemic, fears of attacks from neighbouring Native American tribes and a longstanding rivalry with the more affluent community of Salem Town. Amid these simmering tensions, the Salem witch trials would be fuelled by residents’ suspicions of and resentment toward their neighbours, as well as their fear of outsiders.”

In India, no amount of education and economic progress guarantees women safety from gender-based violence. Adding superstition to male chauvinism makes it deadlier. According to a report in The Economist, women branded as witches are “burned, hacked or bludgeoned to death, typically by mobs made up of their neighbours and, sometimes, their own relatives. Ritual humiliation often precedes death. A suspected witch may expect to be stripped naked, smeared with filth, dragged by her hair and forced to eat excrement.”

Note that none of these helpless women are beautiful, with long powerful braids, pointed nails and backward feet. But the fear of the unconventional female as an evil power persists. It’s not something to be encouraged, leave aside propagated for profit.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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