By Jatindra Dash
BHUBANESWAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian couple and four of their children were hacked to death by a mob of villagers who accused them of practicing witchcraft and making their children sick, police in the eastern state of Odisha said on Monday.
The victims were asleep in their mud house in the hamlet of Lahanda in Keonjhar district, when a group of around five people armed with axes broke in.
The suspects, believed to be relatives of the family, accused the victims of being behind for a spate of frequent illnesses among infants in the village, said police.
District Superintendent of Police Kavita Jalan said two surviving children alerted authorities.
The police reached the village in the early hours of Monday to find the mutilated bodies in pools of blood, an ax abandoned inside the hut, and a young boy still alive.
"The eight-year-old boy was found by police gasping between the dead bodies," Jalan told Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that a search was being conducted to find the suspects, who had fled the village after the incident.
The practice of branding men and women as witches and assaulting or killing them remains common is some parts of India, particularly among tribal communities, despite there being a law against it.
There were 160 cases of murders linked to witch hunts in 2013, and 119 in 2012, data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows.
In a separate incident, police on Monday recovered the remains of a man who was beaten to death and burnt by a mob over allegations of sorcery in Rayagada district, also in Odisha state.
Charity workers say as well as trying to disabuse some tribes of superstitious beliefs, the government needs to focus on education and economic development.
India's tribes make up more than 8 percent of its 1.2 billion population. Yet many live on the margins of society - inhabiting remote villages and eking out a living from farming, cattle rearing and collecting and selling forest produce.
Social indicators in these communities, including literacy, child malnutrition and maternal mortality, are among the lowest in the country. Neglect by the authorities and a Maoist insurgency in the country’s central tribal belt have further exacerbated their plight.
"People believe in superstition because they do not have health care. They are uneducated. Unless we provide them these basic facilities, the situation will not improve," said Debendra Sutar, secretary of the Odisha Rationalist Society, a charity.
(Reporting by Jatindra Dash. Editing by Nita Bhalla and Leslie Gevirtz. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)