Ritual Killings

How crimes of superstition thrive in the new India

A faith healer performs a ritual in Benares. Francois LE DIASCORN / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images
01 October, 2021


Abhay Ohri, a tribal doctor and activist, received a call from a volunteer of Jay Adivasi Yuva Shakti, a tribal youth organisation that he heads in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh. The panic-stricken volunteer asked Ohri to rush to the Ratlam Civil Hospital as soon as he could. “Rajaram Khadari’s body is here,” he said. “He is dead. Some ‘tantra-mantra’ was done on him.”

Ohri struggled to understand what he was being told. It was early in the morning on 20 February 2021, and he had just woken up. As he drove to the hospital in a hurry, thoughts of 27-year-old Rajaram Khadari crossed his mind. After him, it was only Rajaram who could become a doctor in their tribal village. Just a few days earlier, Rajaram had informed Ohri that he had finally been appointed as a government ayurvedic doctor after years of private practice. The colleagues had last met on the birthday of Rajaram’s two-year-old son, Adarsh. “It was just two months before his death,” Ohri told me when I met him in his clinic, in the summer of 2021.

Upon reaching the old white colonial building of the hospital, Ohri saw Rajaram’s body. His entire corpse was coloured in kumkum—a red turmeric powder used during rituals. The body also had lacchas, or ritual yellow threads, tied at numerous places. “I am a doctor, I have examined thousands of corpses,” Ohri told me. “I was scared to look at Rajaram.” Rajaram’s arms and legs had impressions suggesting he had been chained. There were also many marks of injury from sharp objects. His body was bleeding even after his death.

Before Ohri reached the hospital, the staff had found an identification card in Rajaram’s pocket. It belonged to his 28-year-old wife, Seema Katara. The staff members realised it was the same Seema who worked as a nurse in their hospital. They tried to call her, but her phone was switched off. No one from their family was responding to calls. “I realised something is very wrong,” Ohri said. “I immediately asked the police to check their house.”