Accepted paper:

Shaping and embodying police practices through witch accusations in Chhattisgarh, India


Helen Macdonald (University of Cape Town)

Paper short abstract:

Witch murders escape village boundaries and become embodied by the state. The police contend with and administer this citizen/state encounter. By sketching key historical murder this paper highlights the public rituals, symbols and performances and how these are embodied and contested by citizens.

Paper long abstract:

The ethnographer's entry into a witch accusation is typically when the accusation escapes the boundaries of the village and becomes embodied by the police, administration, and courts of law. Historically, the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh has been, and continues to be, confronted with violent assaults and murder targeting individuals who are believed to practice witchcraft. Intersecting with national and state discourses of modernist ideals, witch related violence has been embodied as a politicised object that signals extreme underdevelopment to a state whose legitimacy has depended upon progress and development. The Indian Police Service, the foremost organisation to contend with these issues, maintains a crucial role in administering the citizen/state processes, practices and systems. Commonly associated with attributes of corruption, misuse of authority, violence and partisan politics, the police official emerges in this paper as an ordinary citizen having a special and sometimes difficult public job. By examining a discretionary 'practice' at work in police dealings with witchcraft accusations, I argue that power shapes what is recognised as criminal behaviour, the significance assigned to a crime and therefore embodied practices of policing. By sketching key historical moments this paper highlights the prevailing public rituals, symbols and performances around witch murder and the ways these are both embodied and contested by citizens. This paper concludes that discretionary power opens up a terrain of unpredictability and 'formlessness' that lends hope for citizen rights.

panel P38
Embodied rituals, symbols and performances: embodiment as a negotiation of the state, and state negotiations of embodiment