Chronicle of a Punjabi Witch-Hunt: An Old Woman Is Burned-For Heresy, Say the Villagers-But Jason Burke Uncovers Motives More Powerful Than Religion

By Burke, Jason | New Statesman (1996), June 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

Chronicle of a Punjabi Witch-Hunt: An Old Woman Is Burned-For Heresy, Say the Villagers-But Jason Burke Uncovers Motives More Powerful Than Religion


Burke, Jason, New Statesman (1996)


A year after arriving in Pakistan to work as a freelance journalist, I came across a single-paragraph news story in a local paper describing the killing of a "witch" in a remote part of the Punjab. It described, with scant detail, how she had been murdered in Chak 100P, a village which, like thousands in the Punjab, was still known by the number it had been given by the British administrators 80 years previously. How Muradam Mai died was simple. Why she died was less straightforward.

From the small plane that flew me down to the nearby town of Rahim Yar Khan, I could see thousands of villages, sitting like brick islands in a sea of wheat, cotton and sugar cane. The rains had come at last and the plane, an old Fokker turbopropped 18-seater, dipped and shook as we flew under the thick, dark clouds. I found Muradam Mai's family easily enough, living in a small wood-and-brick house a mile or so from the village where she died, and I sat outside on a rough bench with chickens and small children scrabbling in the mud around my feet.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In my basic Urdu, I spoke to her son, a landless labourer who told me, supplementing language with gestures, that his mother's troubles had begun when, two years earlier, she had started behaving "stupidly". Her moods swung rapidly from ranting anger to utter passivity, and she began disappearing for weeks at a time. He brought me a file of documents. A local doctor had apparently diagnosed "paranoid schizophrenia" and referred his mother to a hospital in Lahore, 300 miles north. The family could not even afford the bus fare, let alone medication, and her wanderings worsened.

At 8am one morning, Muradam Mai was found sitting in Chak 100P's village shrine surrounded by burnt paper, which the villagers said were pages from the shrine's Koran. A group of men dragged her to the village square, where they cut off her fingers, gouged out her eyes, poured petrol over her and lit it. Other villagers stoked the flames with wood and by dropping tyres filled with kerosene on her. By the time the police arrived, at around noon, Muradam Mai was dead and 70 gloating men were standing around her corpse.

"She burned the Koran, so we burned her," they told the officers.

The rain had lifted by the time I got to the village itself. Chak 100P was a collection of mud and brick huts surrounded by green fields, muddy pools full of fat, shiny-skinned cattle and recently purchased tractors. There was a new concrete mosque in the centre of the village. The elders agreed that the case was straightforward.

Chak 100P's headman, Ishfaq, said the woman had died because the villagers "love Islam". "It was the younger ones who did it mainly," Ishfaq said. "Their religion is angrier than ours was at that age. But to burn the Koran is a terrible thing. I'm not saying what happened was good, but such anger is difficult to contain. …

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