Rain in Nandurbar is unpredictable. The sky looks sullen. The dark clouds are pregnant with rain. Men in dirty loincloths work the fields. Children loll on hammocks. Women are curiously out of sight.

This tribal belt in north Maharashtra is a surreal landscape, steeped in superstition, rife with tales of black magic. Here, women have been branded witches since the days of the Aryans. They are accused of possessing evil powers. Powers to curse. Powers to utter dreadful maledictions. Powers strong enough to turn men into fauns.

Once branded a witch, these "evil" women are relegated to the lowest rungs of society. Hunted down, stripped, stoned, beaten, forced to eat their own excreta, they are often sentenced to gory deaths.

I am in a small village called Temburni in search of ghosts, demons, beasts and "witches". Bomtibai, a middle-aged woman, was declared a witch in neighbouring Dhadgaon a year ago after her neighbour's son died after a sudden bout of illness.

Veer Singh Pavra, a school teacher and activist who has been working with Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANS), an NGO working to stop the tradition of witch hunting, tells me Bomtibai's story.

Dubious modus operandi

Bomtibai was accused by her neighbour of using witchcraft to kill his son. The local badwa bhagat, a traditional witch priest who is supposed to have mystical powers to identify a witch, sprinkled a handful of food grains over her head (a traditional way of identifying a witch) and Bomtibai was denounced as a dakin (witch). She was dragged by her hair to the village square and then brutally beaten and stoned.

When she screamed in pain, the badwa bhagat claimed it was the evil spirit possessing Bomtibai which was crying out. If she had not escaped with her family, Bomtibai would have been killed - a fate women accused of witchcraft here generally meet.

Singh accompanies the translator and me to the river ghat where I find Bomtibai along with the entire village assembled for the cremation of a village elder who had died the day before. Bomtibai was sitting on the ground, staring at the funeral pyre. Her body was gaunt. Her skin blistered. Her eyes vacant.

Singh advises us not to approach her. The tribals are drunk and their behaviour unpredictable. We offer to return the next day but Singh says that several villagers believe in witchcraft and they detest Bomtibai's presence in the village. If she is seen talking to a man, it could spell trouble for her. It could even endanger her life.

So we turn back. On the way, Singh says he has observed that it is usually women incapable of defending themselves, who are branded witches. "She can't even protect herself. How can she take someone else's life?" he asks.

As we walk back, we spot a poster, supported on two props, in the middle of a field. "Bhoot ka maamla hai..." (This is a demonic matter) it reads, and goes on to describe how dakins can turn a man's mind. Singh is aghast and asks for the poster to be brought down immediately. Singh feels it is most likely the mischief of a local badwa bhagat.

"Badwa bhagats in this tribal land are revered by people as they remain a source of probable solutions to all physical, mental and environmental problems," says Pratibha Shinde, an activist from the Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti. Based in the region for the last 12 years, Shinde has studied hundreds of dakin cases.

"They capitalise on the superstitious nature of people here. The motives to brand a woman a witch could be many: old family feuds, jealousy or to usurp her property. They are sometimes bribed to label a woman a witch for such reasons. A weak female is usually singled out to be attested a witch. Sometimes amorous advances are made towards women who have no support systems. If she refuses to give in, they declare her as evil."

Avinash Patil, another ANS activist says: "In the tribal areas, even today, people believe that all mishaps are caused by some woman casting evil spells. The badwa bhagat, on being approached by the people, indicates some woman as the culprit."

Convenient technique

The procedure to identify a witch is simple. The badwa bhagat plays with some grains in a state of trance. With his eyes shut and his head roving, he then claims that he has identified the witch. Another method adopted by witch priests is to chain the suspected woman's feet up and command her to walk. If she cannot break free of her shackles, she is denounced as a witch.

Women branded witches in this tribal heartland, explains Shinde, are never sexually exploited because tribals are afraid that evil spirits could be sexually transmitted. So they are never raped. Only maimed. There have been cases, she reveals, of women accused of witchcraft being paraded naked through the village.

"At times, a woman branded a witch is even killed. The killer is always proud of his deed. Killing a dakin is considered an honour even if the killer gets prosecuted or jailed," Patil says.

Advocate Nirmal Kumar Suryavanshi, a lawyer who has fought several cases on behalf of the tribals in the region, says: "There are 11 adivasi [tribal] districts in Maharashtra where witch-hunting is prevalent. More than 400 cases are reported in Nandurbar alone. There are 1,500 villages in Nandurbar's six tehsils [provinces], and several villages together share one police patil. The police stations are out of reach for most tribals. So most of the witch-hunting cases go unreported. Most cases of atrocities come to the fore only when the witch-hunting results in death."

The police patils, many of whom believe in witchcraft, are believed to be hand in glove with the badwa bhagats.

Nirmala, 18, is tired of repeating her mother's story to journalists and police officials. "It is no use, anyways," she says with a bitter smile. Her large eyes are devoid of emotion. After a little probing, she describes how her mother, Kelibai, was killed after being branded a witch.

In 1995, Kelibai was accused of being a witch by a local badwa bhagat in Mandvi village, after the sudden death of a villager, Vansingh Valvi's son. Harassment and death threats became part of her life. Then one day in May 2003 she went out to sell eggs three kilometres away and never returned.

Nirmala's search for her missing mother ended after she found her decomposed corpse two weeks later in a mango orchard in the northern forests of Mandvi. There were shards of Kelibai's broken bangles along with her torn yellow sari, crimps of hair and blood splattered all over the place. Her mother's face had decayed beyond recognition.

All evidence pointed towards Valvi. Ever since then, Nirmala has been on a campaign to bring her mother's killers to book. She has been vociferous about Valvi's role and has publicly criticised the administration for its inaction. When the Dhadgaon police patil failed to take action against him, Nirmala filed a court case against him.

Valvi tried to intimidate her, she says. She moved base from Mandvi to Shahada after being chased by men wielding machetes and axes. Nirmala works as a contract labourer and lives alone. Whenever she mentions her mother, her voice quivers with rage. "I want to bring that criminal to the hangman's noose."

Activists in the region speak of a notorious badwa bhagat whom they have been trying to nab. His influence has spread to other districts of Maharashtra as well. Women suspected of being dakins are taken to his village to be branded witches and then tortured. Activists have been trying to bring him to justice but he has remained elusive.

Tall claims

We drove a couple of hundred kilometres to Huryapani, an obscure hamlet in Dhulia district, to meet Champalal Maharaj. The tribals revere him. He is believed to be blessed with powers to exorcise demons and spirits.

He is married, has two children and does brisk business. His hut has a television and music system. He uses a cellphone.

Since he is wary of journalists, I pose as a prospective client and give my name as Shyam Bhagwati Prasad Varma.

He gives me a suspicious glance. His helpers warn me not to take out my camera. The scene is scary. However, the atmosphere eases after I say that I have travelled a great distance to meet him and that he is my last hope.

I say that I suspect my newly-married wife is a witch. I tell him that ever since she came to live with me, my father has fallen seriously ill and my brothers have left home due to property disputes. I plead with him to help me identify if my wife is a witch. He gives me a receipt and asks me to return with grains to swirl around her head. He says he can easily diagnose if she is a witch.

"Don't worry," says one of Champalal Maharaj's helpers. "Baba had once even exorcised the spirits of two goats which had entered a man. Identifying a dakin is very easy for him," he brags.

If my wife is diagnosed a witch, they tell me, I should "get rid of her" at the earliest. I promise to return the next day.

After much coaxing, Champalal Maharaj reluctantly agrees to pose for a picture with his children.

Despite repeated complaints against witch doctors such as Champalal Maharaj, the administration has not taken any action. Off the record though, police officials in the district admit they find it difficult to take any action against the badwa bhagats as there is no law against witch-hunting. Without a law that deems witch-hunting an offence, all they can do is register such cases as non-cognisable offences.

"If there were no laws against Sati or untouchability, we would still be in the dark ages," reasons Dr Narendra Dabholkar, the head of ANS.

For the past 16 years, ANS has been campaigning for an anti-superstition law to rein in godmen for crimes based on superstitions such as witchcraft, ghost-hunting and working miracles.

Legal stagnation

In 2003, a draft was prepared in consultation with noted personalities such as Justice Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, retired judge of Bombay High Court, Barrister Raja Bhosale and M.B. Pawra, a retired law secretary. The bill has not been tabled yet. Dabholkar feels there is a lack of political will to go ahead with constituting such a law.

In the state capital, Mumbai, Dharmaraobaba Atram, Minister of State for Social Justice, Welfare of Nomadic Tribes and Backward Classes, Women and Child Development, agreed to the fact that it is an important bill but was unable to give a timeframe within which the bill would be presented for discussion.

"We are still discussing the pros and cons of this bill and will try to bring it up in one of the coming sessions," he says.

Which session though, the minister isn't quite sure.

Till this bill gets past the bureaucracy, the badwa bhagats will continue to wield power. And, the "witches" of Nandurbar will continue to live in the shadow of death.