India takes aim at the witch doctors who brand children with hot irons
When a traditional healer burned hot clay into the chest of two-year-old Kushbu Lal, she died. Now moves are afoot to criminalise a practice that continues to cost lives
Jamna Lal shifts uncomfortably on his ancient charpoy bed, seemingly unable to comprehend that he may have been responsible for the death of his two-year-old daughter. He thinks for some time and eventually nods his head. “Yes, I’m also responsible. I decided to take her to the bhopa instead of the hospital, and I must suffer the consequences.”
Lal’s daughter, Kushbu, developed breathing problems in January last year. Like many families in villages around Bhilwara, in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, he did not immediately think of taking her to the hospital.
Communities in this area turn to bhopas, or witch doctors, who believe that burning a child’s chest with a hot piece of iron, clay or cloth will scorch a particular nerve and cure them of certain illnesses.
Bhopa ‘witch doctor’ Ladi Vaieshnav, 70, shows a piece of clay similar to that used for branding toddlers. Photograph: Tanzeel Ur Rehman/Cover Asia Press
Kushbu had a hot piece of clay burned into her chest. Her condition worsened, and she was rushed to hospital. She survived for eight days before she died.
“My ancestors have been doing this for many years,” Lal, 65, says. “We all do it. We took my older daughter Naraya to the bhopa when she was little and she got better and we thought Kushbu would get better too.”
The day after Kushbu died, her father was arrested. Kushbu’s body was taken for a postmortem. “I had no idea why the police were there,” says Lal, who works as a farmer and a labourer, often earning just 300 rupees (£3.30) a day.
Under India’s Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 he had, in fact, recklessly ignored Kushbu’s safety by taking her to the bhopa.
Since she was appointed chair of Rajasthan’s child welfare committee, Suman Trivedi has worked to end the child branding tradition. “When I was a social worker I was faced with many frustrating injustices, but I had little power to do anything,” she says. “Through the child welfare committee I have powers to make real change.”
When she discovered no organisations were looking into the practice, she began to ask questions. “I found the Juvenile Justice Act covers child cruelty and I decided to use the law to implement change.”
Trivedi instructed hospitals across Bhilwara to inform her when a branding case was admitted. Though three children have died, she has lodged 14 cases with the police since 2016, which are awaiting trial.
Ladi Vaieshnav, 70, with her son Satyanarayan, 35. Photograph: Tanzeel Ur Rehman/Cover Asia Press
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One of those arrested is the witch doctor accused of branding Kushbu, 70-year-old Ladi Vaieshnav. “I’ve treated around 40 children over the last 20 years but not one has ever died,” she says. “I was shocked and felt pain when I heard of the death of the little girl but the father wanted me to do it. He came to me.
“I learned the methods from another [bhopa] many years ago. I don’t know how, but these babies would be cured within 20 minutes of the branding. It worked many times.”
Her 35-year-old son, Satyanarayan, who has a branding scar on his chest, says: “She’s spent years doing good. Many babies have been cured. But something went wrong this time.”
Vaieshnav, who is awaiting trial, insists she will never brand another baby. “I tell everyone I’m no longer doing it. And I tell other bhopas to stop. Things can go wrong, and these children should go to the hospital.”
Trivedi says that branding has spiralled out of control. “It’s due to a lack of education, and the levels of illiteracy in these parts,” she says. “The government’s healthcare is not reaching the grassroots, and these communities think the old remedies will heal their child.”
But she believes she is making progress. “The first time we lodged a case with the police there was a lot of opposition. The parents got angry. But branding a child is wrong. If you make a chapati, and dip it in hot oil, it’ll burn your skin. These parents are burning materials and branding their babies. How must the child feel? They can’t express their pain but cry.
“I know the parent’s intentions are not bad. They want their child to get better, but they don’t realise the path they’re choosing is the wrong one. I need to make people aware that it’s a crime and I have to make some strict decisions. But the results speak for themselves. There are fewer branding issues today because people are aware that if they’re caught I will lodge a case against them and they’re scared now.”
Narayni Lal, 13, whose sister Kushbu died last year, shows her branding scar. Photograph: Tanzeel Ur Rehman/Cover Asia Press
But while bhopas claim to have stopped the practice, older family members still use the techniques. When Panibai, 65, from a village outside Bhilwara, saw her three-year-old grandson, Sundar, struggling with fever and dehydration last summer, she burned a corner of her sari in the fire pit and branded his chest three times. Within 24 hours, he got worse. He spent the next six days in hospital.
Her son Raju Kalbaliya, 35, has a branding scar on his chest too. He understands why his mother branded his son but admits he was alarmed when he heard. “My mother did what she had to do,” he says. “There’s no medical assistance in these parts so we have this custom and it’s worked for many babies here.
“But I felt pain when I heard my son had experienced this. I know it’s not good, and I’m telling the community it’s not good. We should use the hospitals for the sake of our children.”
Panibai was arrested and is also awaiting trial. If found guilty she faces a hefty fine and a minimum three years in prison for child cruelty.
Dr Radhe Shayam Shrotriya, head of paediatrics at the government-run Medical College hospital in Bhilwara, has seen 11 cases of branding in the past two years. “These children are brought here very sick and it becomes very difficult to treat them. The branding is on the abdominal wall, sometimes an incision, sometimes a thumbprint type, but the parents do not understand what they’re doing is wrong.
“When we find out they’ve been branded we call the police, and since doing this over the last two years we’ve seen the numbers drop. But we can’t just punish the parents, we need to counsel them. If their babies are ill, they should go to the hospital. These parents don’t want to kill their baby, but these parents are ignorant and very misguided, I feel much empathy for them.”
Naresh Pareek of the Mewar Sewa Sansthan charity, which is backed by the organisation Plan International, is a member of the child welfare committee. He says: “We’ve faced a lot of challenges as we’ve pressured these communities to stop. But people are aware now, and they know of the consequences. People get angry with us but we face their anger. I feel it’s our moral obligation.”
Trivedi adds: “I think we’re on the right path. There has already been a decline in branding cases and even if it will take a number of years, it will disappear from our society in the end.”
Jamna Lal looks at a small passport-size photograph of his daughter. “I lost my child, I will never get her back. I will not use bhopas again, we must use hospitals.”