SHIMLA: The hills of Himachal Pradesh are reverberating in shock and anger over the harassment perpetrated upon an 81-year-old woman in Samahal village, Sarkaghat, Mandi after she was declared a witch and sorceress.

A video that went viral a few days ago showed how people blackened Raj Dei’s face and thrashed her while parading here through the village and threatening her with the wrath of the local deity.

The atrocity has led to the arrest of 24 persons, but still important is the fact that more people have reportedly come forward to narrate similar ordeals.

It was barely nine months back that a mob thrashed a Dalit in Sainj village, Kullu because a bouquet thrown by followers of a local deity fell into his lap at a religious congregation.

Such instances are a blot on the face of the hill state described by its politicians as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ or the Land of Deities. They bring to light the humiliation being meted to the poorest of the poor, mainly women and Dalits, in the name of a deity.

Superstitions and related medieval practices continue to dictate the social life in Himachal’s villages. Even today the local deities dictate most people’s social lives, particularly in villages in the mountains, and no occasion is organised or important activity performed without ‘consulting’ the deities.

While deity culture continues to dominate the lifestyle in the hills, people here are very angry over the assault on Raj Dei, as they feel that no deity would consent to such an act against a woman.

Raj Dei is the widow of a veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. According to reports her house was ransacked on October 23 and on November 6 she was branded a witch, driven out of her house with her face blackened and paraded through the village by a mob.

Reports say she tried to jump in front of a bus in a bid to end her life. It was the bus driver and conductor who rescued her and took her to safety.

“It is only because someone recorded her ordeal and put it on social media that there has been a public outcry and a call to give justice to the poor lady. The clip going viral pushed the authorities to act. Otherwise the majority of such cases go unreported,” pointed out zila parishad member Bhupinder Samrat of the CPI(M). The Left here has come out strongly on the issue, demanding a thorough probe into the matter and bringing the guilty to book.

Fresh reports have quoted Krishna Devi, 72, also of Samahal village coming forward to disclose that she was also assaulted, made to wear a garland of shoes and paraded with a blackened face.

Another survivor to have come forward is Jai Gopal, a retired teacher, who reportedly alleged that his house was vandalised.

Bhupinder Samrat told The Citizen that while the poor often turn to deities looking for medical and other remedies, a lot of illicit activities are being carried out by anti-social elements like drug addicts who are out to cheat people of their money in the name of local deities.

“Since it is an issue related to the religious sentiment and faith of the masses, the least that needs to be done is to fix accountability. We have sought that local deities across the state be registered right down to the panchayat level. This is required so that anti-socials do not harass people in the name of deities that are often unheard of even in the villages,” he said.

Social activist Kuldeep Verma of People’s Action for People in Need, who has been studying the phenomenon for decades, said that it is mostly the poor, Dalits and women who are harassed this way.

“There is an upper-caste segment with resources that does not want the poor to break away from the shackles of casteism and menial work. They use things like the fear of the deities to psychologically, socially and economically suppress the poor, so that they do not give up the jobs they have been doing for ages,” Verma said.

“The remedy lies in instant action by law-enforcing agencies. But this is not allowed to happen. Legal action follows only when there is an outcry, but by then there is ample time to suppress the facts and witnesses or work out a compromise. People do not get justice because our courts also rely on witnesses who are very difficult to persuade to speak out. Fear of deities adds to the pressure,” he said.

Verma pointed out another aspect of the problem: that mainstream political parties have not shown the will to address the issue, while the NGOs who want to work in this direction are short of resources and far too small to initiate an exercise at the level of the state.

This reporter has come across many people, particularly those from Dalit and poor backgrounds, who confided how the threat of the wrath of deities continues to be used against them.

They disclosed how politicians approach them on election eve with a lota (water vessel) and salt, and make them swear by the local deity to vote only for them.

Many also said that rampant casteism is often justified in the name of the local deities.

People underline that this is a very touchy issue, and typically even the administrative officials refrain from touching it. This is not surprising because the majority of officials too come from the same social milieu.