For Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, the world of the paranormal and metaphysical is not some make-believe hocus pocus, or the stuff that scripts sensational television drama. It is her life’s work. A popular Wicca, or witch in lay terms, she not only administers Wiccan ways of healing, but has also made it her mission to travel to remote villages across India, especially where innocent women are declared witches and then murdered, to dispel myths about “witchcraft”. “Being a Wicca is very different from the conventional perceptions that people have of spell-spewing women, who are up to no good, bringing the scourge of disease, famines and loss on people and communities,” she emphasises.
The daughter of a diplomat, Chakraverti spent her early years in Canada and the US. Her tryst with the world of the Wicca began when she was accepted into a select group of women called the Society for the Study of Ancient Cultures and Civilizations in London. She was with them for three years and finally chose to follow Wicca as her religion. In a news report she has commented, “It started as an academic curiosity. […] Wicca includes both scientific facts and old lore. We studied Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche because Wicca means studying various layers of the human mind.”
She decided to come back to India in the late 1980s when she realised that women, particularly in rural Bengal, were being abused and tortured after they were declared to be ‘dayans’ and ‘dakinis’. In her book, ‘Beloved Witch’, she reveals that she went to villages in Purulia, Bankura and Birbhum documenting such mishaps and motivating women, who were emotionally or physically battered by men, to take control of their lives. Says Chakraverti, “I am glad I came back to my roots. Purulia in West Bengal was one of the first places I had visited. A social welfare organisation had asked me to accompany them because there had been reports of witch-hunts from the region. I clearly remember that the temperature was soaring to 45 degrees Celsius; the roads were dry and dusty, with oxen cart tracks marking the white dust. On reaching one of the villages where the welfare organisation was conducting trainings in sewing and kantha embroidery, all I did for the first few days was to sit quietly among groups of women busy with their work. Then, even though their men folk continued to treat me suspiciously, the women started to talk to me about their daily lives. Days later, I gradually inquired about the witch-hunts and then some stunning facts came to light.”
Chakraverti found out that there had been a young, beautiful widow in the village. After her husband’s death, some local men started eyeing the family’s property, which was now in her name. They got the perfect opportunity to grab this land when a man in the village deserted his wife. The miscreants not only accused the widow of witchcraft but also blamed her for seducing the man. As a punishment for her ‘misdeeds’, she was stripped, severely beaten and killed. Later, they even burnt her body. “When the men in the village discovered that I had come to know the reality behind the killing, they grew very threatening and hostile. Thankfully, the truth came out soon before the local administration and the culprits were punished. Eventually, with stricter policing and vigilance from the authorities, such incidents are getting somewhat reduced,” she adds.
But Chakraverti also believes that not enough has been done to check such atrocities periodically unleashed on unsuspecting women, even as Wicca continues to be grossly misunderstood. Working overtime to change this reality is the Wiccan Brigade, which she and her daughter, Deepta, started in November 2006. “After many decades of doing Wiccan work in India, I realised there was a need to involve more like-minded people into the movement. There were many who wanted to know, learn and understand this religion. These were the people who believed in self-respect, dignity and in bringing back an ancient wisdom into the modern world. I launched the Wiccan Brigade from Kolkata and it has grown over the years. We have now formed a psychic investigations’ wing that looks into reports of haunting and other paranormal activity. We blend science, magic and mysticism to conduct our investigations. Of course, we need much more awareness and activism to protect innocent women from falling prey to unscrupulous people wishing to use Wicca as their weapon,” explains Chakraverti.
To ensure her message is carried to a wider audience, Chakraverti has also authored a couple of books – Beloved Witch came out in 2003 while Sacred Evil: Encounters With the Unknown, which chronicles nine case studies during her life as a Wiccan healer and gives explanations as to why those events happened, was released in 2006. In fact, ‘Sacred Evil’ has also been turned to a film starring popular actor Sarika. “These are great ways to catch people’s attention. In our country, the film medium is very powerful and can deeply influence both rural and urban folk. As for the books, both of which are bestsellers, I know that they have had an impact on the youth. I have been invited to speak at numerous colleges and universities,” she adds.
While the practice of accusing women of witchcraft is on the rise in India, this worrisome trend does not deter Chakraverti or her followers. “We understand that it will not be easy to battle an attitude which is ingrained in the Indian psyche at all levels of society. After all, it is the ideal way to keep women at a subservient level and to ensure that they have no standing in the home or at the workplace. However, I think it will help immensely if the youth can be educated and trained to understand the true Wicca. It is not that women are seen as advocates of the devil, but it is easier for them to be portrayed as such when a situation arises. Predictably, women who have no defence against such assaults are targeted,” she explains.
Chakraverti sees a definite change in attitudes although it is slow. “Today, while the masses remain uninformed and superstitions are still strongly rooted, there is a section of people who are much more informed and eager to come forward and be part of the Wiccan Brigade. Students and young professionals, in particular, are looking at Wicca in a different light altogether. But then I come across incidents that can still take me by surprise. I remember a recent case in Uttar Pradesh where an educated, well-placed government officer posted in a rural district accused a woman in the village of practicing witchcraft in order to remove her from her coveted government post,” she shares.
While her Wiccan movement is slowly proving to be an effective tool to protect women from brutal witch hunts, there is greater need for counselling of the victimised women so that they can raise their voices and fight for their rights. Of course, this cannot be done without government support and Chakraverti believes that the local administration can help in creating awareness and well as in eradicating superstition.
Says she, “If awareness can be built and superstition ended, everything else will follow. The government needs to shrug off its laid back attitude and take immediate action in complaints of witch-hunting. The time to stand by and watch women being lynched and called ‘dayans’ is over.”