What the ban on The Adivasi Will Not Dance tells us about India’s political life
The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a book of short stories by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, has been banned by the Jharkhand government on the grounds that it is offensive to the dignity of Santhal women. Some also allege that it is pornographic.
What does this episode tell us about social and political life in the 70th year of the Republic?
The story that has caused the greatest offence is entitled November is the Month of Migrations. A brief-but-powerful tale of power and powerlessness, it tells of a penurious Santhal family on its annual work-related migration from Jharkhand to West Bengal. The family is waiting for a train to take them away from their local misery to a distant one. Talamai, one of the daughters, is beckoned by a man – a non-Santhal policeman – who holds a bread pakoda in his hands. Talamai is hungry and her family has no food to offer. The policeman offers food in exchange for sex. Talamai endures the encounter as she has earlier learned to do. She eats the pakodas, tucks away a Rs 50 note that the policeman gives her and returns to join her family. A routine affair conditioned by the circumstances of power and powerlessness.
The longer ‘The Adivasi will not dance’ is about why 60-year old Mangal Murmu refuses to dance at a government function. When the indigent Murmu first receives an invitation to perform, he is pleased. He soon learns that the occasion is the inauguration of construction activity for a privately funded thermal plant by the president of India. The land on which the plant is to be built is part of a village whose residents have been evicted through official diktat. Murmu’s daughter and her family is part of the evictee group and has been forced to move to her father’s house. ‘You are making us Santhal’s dance in Pakur’, Mangal Murmu wants to say to the officials who are organising the ceremony, ’and you are displacing Santhals from their villages in Godda. Isn’t your VIP going to see that?....Doesn’t your VIP read the papers or watch news on TV?’
“If coal merchants have taken a part of our lands, the other part”, the hapless Mangal Murmu says, “has been taken over by stone merchants, all Diku – Marwari, Sindhi, Mandal, Bhagat, Muslim. They turn our land upside down, inside out, with their heavy machines. They sell the stones they mine from our earth in faraway places—Dilli, Noida, Punjab”. Mangal Murmu continues: “What do we Santhals get in return? Tatters to wear. Barely enough food. Such diseases that we can’t breathe properly. We cough blood and forever remain bare bones”. And this is why, Mangal Murmu – addressing the president – announces that the Adivasi will not dance anymore.
Shekhar’s stories are powerful narratives of multiple forms of violence towards Advasis: Dispossession from land and helplessness against the might of mining companies; the venality of politicians; the whimsy of missionaries and the hollowness of middle-class sympathies. They speak of Adivasis being treated as heritage-toys who perform for tourists to show the ‘rich’ diversity of India, but are meant to forever stay as museum pieces, unable to access good education and health.
But the stories are not only earnest renderings of power and powerlessness. That would make for boring fiction. They also speak of love, intimacy and loss in the crucible of desperate economic and social circumstances: They are marked by the bracing touch of collapsed infrastructure, rapacious private interests and the erratic paternalism of the State. But, nevertheless, hopes, desires, aspirations and yearnings to escape an oppressive present break free from the flotsam and jetsam of what modernity has wrought for indigenous populations. It is this remarkable combination of creative and political sensibilities that make the collection worthy of admiration.
These stories of Santhal lives are unsentimental renderings of quotidian struggles and aspirations, as opposed to representations of Disneyfied noble savages, infantilised adults and promiscuous strumpets that populate the non-indigenous imagination. To ban such a book on the grounds of promoting ‘immoral’ and ‘pornographic’ images of Santhal identity is to completely miss the relationship between creativity and politics. The Republic at 70 deserves better.
Sanjay Srivastava is professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.
The views expressed are personal