Last week, police in Koppal, a town of 56,000 in Karnataka, India, arrested nine individuals and detained four others for questioning in the kidnapping and murder of a five-year-old girl. According to the local authorities, the girl was sacrificed in an effort to magically locate buried treasure on a construction site.
The girl, identified only as Gayatri, disappeared around Koppal on January 26. Yet police believe the girl was not killed until February 3, as they found her body the next day in the first floor bathroom of the unfinished house the murderers apparently believed contained a $2.9 million fortune.
Human sacrifice is a viscerally disturbing accusation, and is often met with understandable skepticism. America collectively freaked the fuck out over it during the Satanic panic in the 80s and 90s, which led to a bevy of false accusations and terrified housewives assuming the teenager listening to Slayer next door was offering up babies to the dark lord. Given that history, a healthy suspicion about claims like those in Kappal are understandable. Yet the local police, led by Superintendent P. Raja, took their time in labeling Gayatri's murder a ritual sacrifice rather than jumping to the conclusion. And they have a good amount of precedent to draw upon in determining the motives of the murder, not just because of the testimony of the many participants they brought in, but because there have been quite a few well-attributed, vetted, and prosecuted cases of human sacrifice in India over the past decade.
One of the most famous of these cases was the October 2011 kidnapping and murder of a seven-year-old girl named LalitaTati in the state of Chhattisgarh. Police discovered her body—throat slit, and liver removed—a week after her disappearance, but the case only made international headlines in January 2012 , when suspects admitted that they'd killed the girl in order to yield a successful crop. Reports indicated that many locals believed the girl's father, Budhram Tati (the original suspect in the case), was casting black magic spells against them, which could be counteracted by the potent ritual of killing a pre-pubescent girl and offering her organs to the Hindu goddess Durga.
However, there were many cases of human sacrifice throughout (mostly rural) India before and after the Tati incident that received less press. In 2003, a couple in Uttar Pradesh kidnapped and sacrificed a child on the advice of a mystic, in the hope that it would bring them a son. And in 2006, a woman in the same state sacrificed a boy from her village after a tantric told her this would allay the curse she believed she was living under. This case led to a flurry of local coverage during which police spoke of a rise in ritual murders and regional papers claimed as many as 28 human sacrifices had occurred in the same district within the first third of the year.
In 2013, the practice caught international attention again when a 50-year-old woman in a Mumbai suburb was murdered on the advice of an Air India technician-slash-black magic practitioner she frequented. The sorcerer, who later admitted to his involvement in at least one other human sacrifice, had told another set of clients that the woman's death would bring them wealth and wellbeing. His admission and the proximity of this usually backwater crime to a major urban center managed to spook quite a few people in the area.
There's even at least one precedent for the alleged use of child sacrifice to locate treasure as in the recent Koppal incident. Last spring, a man in Bihar supposedly sacrificed his 15-month-old daughter to find a treasure buried in the ruins of a nearby fortress. And just a few weeks before Gayatri's death in Koppal, police in Thuvakudi in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu implicated a local "witch" named Dhanam, who they claimed had tried to kidnap and sacrifice three children in 2008, in the death of a four-year-old girl found floating in a stone quarry pit.
It's tempting to look at these patterns and say that the publicity surrounding cases like those in Bihar and Tamil Nadu is priming folks to mislabel other deaths as sensationalist human sacrifices when the reality might be something more mundane. And that is a real possibility. But India's not the only country to be persistently hit with accusations of human sacrifice. During the Liberian Civil War, there were many allegations (at least one couple with an admission) of systematic human sacrifices, and even now there's a well-documented spate of ritual murders of albinos in Tanzania for the mystic benefit of the murderers. These cases may be exaggerated as well, but it does seem that while human sacrifice is utterly taboo and completely unheard of in some parts of the world, there are pockets where epidemics of the practice still break out—usually in regions of deep traditional belief and often deep crises which throw the whole social balance out of whack.
Local authorities and anthropologists argue that the Indian countryside, where traditional beliefs and practices remain strong amongst marginalized, poor, and isolated minority groups, is suffering from just such an epidemic. Some credit this to ignorance and backwardness, but the more likely cause seems to be a sense of dislocation as businesses snap up land and populations shift rapidly, throwing sometimes-predatory outsiders into churning and turbulent societies.
"The tribal people [rural India, major mystic practitioners] feel really threatened," Professor Subhandra Channa, an anthropologist who studies these issues at the University of Delhi, told the Daily Mail in 2012. "They are feeling helpless in the face of a big power [like land grabbers]."
In these uncertain environments, although it seems brutal and absurd, it's not unheard of for people to turn to ritual. Sometimes that ritual is violent—especially against outsiders or those who challenge the status quo. Think of the leopard-man murders of West Africa in the late 19th century, in which secret cults of men pretending to be were-cats took out those who threatened local power balances, but whose murders eventually spun out of control and fizzled out.
We can't be sure whether the Koppal murder was a ritual sacrifice, or what the explicit or implicit motives behind it were. But within the context of a churning Indian countryside, it's not impossible that the cops in Karnataka were right—that this is just the latest in a series of cultic child murders, which no matter the social forces driving it is an unforgivable tragedy. If we believe that this is what's happening in Koppal and the rest of rural India, then the next step is to figure out how to allay whatever forces are driving this disturbing trend. Because right now there seems to be a lot more rubbernecking at baroque tragedy and debating the reality of the seemingly outlandish problem than discussion of ideas on how to overcome the issue.
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