Dunk a child's fingers in boiling hot oil – that's how these villagers deal with basic illnesses

In rural India, even today, superstitions are steeped deep. The disease symptoms of many children are taken to be a foul act of fantastical spirits or hexes and treated by the brutal burning of their body parts. The victims of such malpractices are rendered handicapped for the rest of their lives

Neetu SinghNeetu Singh   16 Sep 2019 5:30 AM GMT

Dunk a child

Savitri Devi wailed out aloud in front of her husband and mother-in-law, but her mother-in-Law, paying no heed to her, proceeded to burn Savitri's innocent five-year-old's tender feet over hot coals.

Savitri had told her mother-in-law that her child has taken to drink more milk than usual so her mother-in-law believed that the child is possessed by jamoga (evil spirit) and to rid from it, she put both the feet of her newborn grandson into fire.

Similarly, Neha Paswan's one-and-a-half-year-old daughter's right-hand fingers were dipped in hot boiling oil by her husband when she was merely 12 days old.

Like Savitri in Lucknow and Neha in Shravasti there have been several such incidences heard on a regular basis within the country. Occurring even in the present 21st century, such pernicious acts of superstitions are heart-wrenching.

Savitri and Neha's children's limbs were burnt by their families under suspicion of jamoga's influence and the belief that the act of burning would save their lives. Their superstition, however crippled, the children for the rest of their days.

Savitri showing her kid's disfigured body parts. Photo: Gaon ConnectionSavitri showing her kid's disfigured body parts. Photo: Gaon Connection

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, between 2014 and 2019, 52 children lost their lives due to superstition. Similarly, for the period 1991-2010, 177 deaths were attributed to black magic related incidences whereas in 2000-2016, 2,500 deaths were related to witchcraft practices.

Savitri, 30, a resident of Gosainpur block, which is at a distance of a mere 30 kms from Lucknow, said: "Whenever I look at my son's feet, I am reminded of that ill-fated day. The entire family was on one side and I alone on the other protesting against it. When she was putting both his feet on fire it killed me, but no one listened."

Telling about jamoga, the so-called evil spirit behind the death and injury to several kids, Dr Neelam Singh, the founder of Vatsalya, informed: "Tetanus actually is referred to as jamoga in the native dialect. If an expectant mother gets two vaccines during her pregnancy the chances of her children catching this infection is rare. There was a time when many children used to perish due to tetanus, but now theses deaths have reduced substantially. If a newborn changes colour it can be attributed to other probable causes such as hypothermia or some congenital heart problem. In such a case immediate medical attention is required."

A United Nations report shows the deep influence of superstition and ignorance in India. A 2010 report of the UN informs that between 1987 and 2003, 2,556 women were killed under the suspicion of witchcraft.

Cuddling her one-and-half-year-old daughter, Neha Paswan, 19, a villager living in Sravasti district, said: "When she was four or five days old, her body began changing colour. When I told this to my husband, he said that she has jamoga. She would die if her hand is not dipped in boiling oil. I was no wiser. For four-five days I protested and was finally told that she'd die if not branded."

Fearing her daughter's death Neha could not stand up to her husband. Today only thumb and a finger remain on her daughter's right hand.

These incidences did not occur in some remote tribal area, but in villages in close proximity of big cities well set on the path to becoming future smart cities well equipped with technology.

On August 30, 2019, in a village, about 30 kms from Lucknow, Kamla Devi, 50, put the hand of her three-month-old grandson in boiling oil due to which the child died the next day.

When the Gaon Connection reporter sought an account of it from Kamla Devi she seemed very casual about it. She said, "We couldn't detect jamoga timely in my grandson. If known earlier we would have had the spirit exorcised but we came to know pretty late."

It was shocking to see Kamla Devi not betraying any sign of remorse. She added, "He didn't cry a single time when his hand was immersed in the oil, it means he had jamoga."

How deep is rural India entrenched in superstition it can easily be gauged by listening to Kamla Devi. "Its name (jamoga) is not taken in the village because it can enter a house even at a mention of its name. Many times it enters a child inside a mother's womb. It is that influence which kills a child and remains alive bothering the entire household. The same happened with my grandson," she said.

In order to protect their homes from evil spirits, these villagers hammer nails on doors. In order to protect their homes from evil spirits, these villagers hammer nails on doors.

After the grandson's demise, she had the entire house 'fixed' by hammering nails on all doors of her house so it may remain free of the evil spirits. She's had the nails blessed and procured from a local seer.

When the Gaon Connection reporter tried to know more about jamoga from the residents of four-five villages of Shravasti and Lucknow, most of them told that if the body colour of a new born begins to change into light blue or black or yellow or if the baby increases its breastmilk intake suddenly, we believe that he has jamoga.

Many village elders justified the superstition on the basis of jamoga's ability to take children's lives. If the affected child is not branded or burnt in oil, the spirit, they said, would kill the child anyway. To shoo away jamoga and save the child its limbs are so burnt.

Maya Devi, an Anganwadi worker from a village near Lucknow mentioned two-three jamoga related incidents from her villages saying, "Jamoga is no new illness, it is an age-old problem. Some people seek to conjure the spirit or branding the victim. A man from our village was similarly branded as a kid due to jamoga, but no harm came to him."

Seeing the faith of an Anganwadi worker, who is entrusted with the care of little children and expectant mothers, in superstitions like jamoga; one can well understand the plight of such villages.

At the same time, even after losing the life of her three-month-old grandson, Kamla Devi is far from realizing the truth. She still seeks the help of charlatans to ward off evil spirits.

She said: "Soon after the death of my grandson, my daughter-in-law got possessed by the evil spirits. We sought a local senior woman's help in curing her. We take every spirit victim to her and despite being over 100 years, she fixes them all by her immense divine powers."

In order to meet Virja Devi, the exorcist, Gaon Connection reporter had to feign the act of a possessed person in order to understand the former's mode of operation. Virja Devi cannot see and is barely able to hear.

Villagers get these nails blessed and procured from a local seer and nail them on the doors of their homes. Photo: Gaon ConnectionVillagers get these nails blessed and procured from a local seer and nail them on the doors of their homes. Photo: Gaon Connection

Calling for Rs 5 worth clove she chants some mantra and blows telling a tale of ghosts. After such a show, people readily believe her.

Virja Devi said: "Go ask the villagers for they will tell you how many people I have cured. Any external influence is cured by my talisman and cloves. Many became parents due to my powers." When asked where she learned the art from, pat came her reply that the powers were all bestowed upon her by God himself.

Uttar Pradesh's Shravasti district is the most backward with an average literacy rate of 46.26% (General Census 2011) whilst India's average literacy rate is 74.04%. As per the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16), in Shravasti, only 42.7% of the females aged six and above have been to school. During the survey, 7.0% of women aged between 15 and 19 years were either expectant or had become mothers. Also, the percentage of women in the age group 20-24 that were married before 18 years of age was 67.9.

Sushma Devi, an associate at Mahila Samakhya, an organization working for the betterment of women, said: "There has been a drop in the burning incidents as compared to earlier times. We visit village after village raising awareness about jamoga-related malpractices. Some listen, others don't."

Regarding such occurrences in Shravast district, its chief medical officer Dr VKSingh said: "I am not notified about any such incidence, but still the region being extremely backwards is rife with numerous beliefs. Even today' people spend two days of illness in sorcery remedies before coming to the hospital. We direct ASHA workers to take up the matter of superstition for discussion, but how much they follow it we do not know."

Meanwhile, 750 kms far from Uttar Pradesh's Shravasti in Jharkhand, a similar dayan (sorceress)the practice is costing the lives of several innocent women.

Reshma Kumari of Aali an organization working in Jharkhand to provide a legal remedy to women said: "Here incidents pertaining to superstition are quite common. It points out to the faults in public health and education systems because people are largely ignorant. No one has told these people to seek medical help and not that of a sorcerer."

As per 2014-15 records of Jharkhand State Crime Bureau, about 203 people have lost their life coming in contact with the practices of sorcery and 4,125 people were affected in the ensuing violence.

The victims of such malpractices are rendered handicapped for the rest of their lives. Photo: Gaon ConnectionThe victims of such malpractices are rendered handicapped for the rest of their lives. Photo: Gaon Connection

Due to poor education and health services at the rural level, such superstitious practices like dayan and jamoga exist. This can be easily understood by Reshma's views.

"Most of the deaths attributed to sorcery happen during the rainy season because it is in this season that various illnesses spread and people associate them with dayan. Previously only women were killed but of late even men and children are being killed," Reshma informed.

Dr Ashutosh Verma, a pediatrician and vice chairman, Lucknow Academy of Pediatrics said: "If a child is small and is seen light blue or greyish, pay attention to his body temperature. It can be indicative of hypothermia, lung infection or heart-related ailments." He added: "Women should go for regular check-ups during pregnancy. If an expectant mother falls sick, she should be provided with immediate medical help. Also, ensure that the baby is born under a doctor's supervision. If a child shows any symptoms, he must be taken to a doctor as soon as possible."

At the same time Savitri blames herself for the burnt fingers of her child, "If only I had a shade of suspicion that they would burn my child, I would have never revealed that he has increased his feeds. I couldn't bring myself to talk to my mother-in-law until six months after the incidence. His burn wounds being so severe my child had been through hell. Only after intensive treatment of one and half year could he walk a little."

Devesh today is a young boy of six, but still, when he walks barefoot his wounds resurface and bleeding occurs. He plays wantonly in a corner with dirt despite repeated warnings from his worried mother as his feet being tender are still prone to bruising.

Devesh's father Ramkishore, 33, said: "How could have I gone against my mother. We were naïve and had to forcibly accept whatever my mother did. Much had been spent on him so that he may walk. He is a bright child, but his legs would fail him. Growing up, he would curse us for his remaining days."

(All names changed to protect identities)

Also Read: Discard Superstitions & Outdated Traditions

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