Beyond national bans, effigy burning, and online trolling; Author Sowvendra Shekhar’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance,’ remains one of the most important narratives depicting Adivasis and their lives, in contemporary India.
Author Hansda Shekhar comes from the Santhal community in Jharkhand. His first novel, 'The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey'' debuted in 2014 and won the 2015 Yuva Puruskar. Known as one of the strong voices in contemporary Indian politics, Shekhar released his second book, ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance,’ in 2015, and got nominated for the 2016 Hindu Literary Prize.
Shekhar is also a doctor, serving in public hospitals, at Pakur district of Jharkhand. Growing up, he always admired books and the craft of writing. He was motivated to tell the story of his community. ’The Adivasi Will Not Dance,’ published by Speaking Tiger in 2015 is a series of short stories spread across the mineral-rich hinterlands of Jharkhand. Shekhar brings to life different characters of the Santhal tribe. The novelist narrates the tale of his community as he deals with themes like crimes in the area, migration of Adivasi people, sexual harassments of Santhali women, as well as violation of basic rights like killing of people in his district "for no apparent reasons" (Shekhar 2015). The title of the book was inspired by one of his stories called ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’. This story narrates how the Santhal tribe, and the Adivasi community in general, have to use their dance forms and songs, which are sacred to them, as a means to earn money by entertaining people.
“The Helicopter arrived…thud thud thud thud…. The rotors swirled dust from the playing field. The crowd was excited, and a slow roar began." (Shekhar 2015). The president of India was visiting Pakur, the story narrates. As a group of individuals from the Santhal tribe got ready to sing and dance before the President, Troupe Master, Mangal Murmu, also a farmer, took the mic to address the President. “Johar, Rashtrapati Babu, Murmu began. We are very proud that we have been asked to sing and dance in front of you and welcome you to our place…. but tell us, do we have a reason to sing and dance? Do we have a reason to be happy? You will now start building the power plant, but this power plant will be the end of all Adivasis. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to grow our crops…. How can we Adivasis dance and be happy? Unless we are given back our homes and lands, we will not sing and dance. We Adivasis will not dance.” The story is depicted as being narrated by the 60-year-old Mangal Murmu, as he recalls being beaten up by the police; his fellow singers and dancers being forced off the stage; and the cries of mercy from his community.
In August 2017, the Jharkhand government banned the book under the accusations that its depiction of Santhal women was “denigrating and pornographic “. The story titled ‘November is the Month of Migrations’, was the primary target of the authorities as it depicted violence of public officials and the representatives of the state on Adivasi women. The story centres around a young Santhal woman named Talamai, who is exploited by a jawan from the Railway Protection Force. The then state Chief Minister Raghubar Das ordered the seizing of all available copies of the book as well as the initiation of legal proceedings against the author.
"I read about the ban in the newspaper, and did not have resources to fight it", said Shekhar. The writer was suspended from his service for writing these narratives and stories depicting the plight of the Adivasis, without taking permission from the Jharkhand government. He was also harassed and bullied online. Some groups also launched online and offline campaigns against him and his writing, which, they claim, objectified and exploited Adivasi women. Labelling it as “porn”, people accused Shekhar of portraying Adivasi culture in a degraded form. Some local newspapers in Jharkhand also reported that people were contemplating burning Shekhar’s effigy and copies of both his books at a park in Pakur.
“My publisher, Speaking Tiger supported me during the ban and also after it. I think there are two important roles that publishing houses play. The first is providing a platform for stories that need to be told even though not everyone might agree with those stories. Second is not being cowed down by demands of withdrawing a book even if it is deemed offensive to some,” said Shekhar. “However, I do understand that these may not be possible all the time because there is often so much at stake, including the lives and belongings of the people who work at those publishing houses,” he added. According to Shekhar, the book ban and the discussions around it have contributed nothing to Adivasi lives. They are restricted to social media. “As for me, it contributed to fear and apprehension in my life,” he stated. “Many people here do not even know about the book or that I am a writer,” he said.
The book was given a clean chit after a four-month-long ban. The government had constituted a team of tribal experts and authors to conduct an inquiry. The state government informed the assembly that it found nothing objectionable in Shekhar’s book, with the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Saryu Roy declaring that the ban would be lifted (The Telegraph). “He is a well-known author and a Sahitya Akademi Award winner. We ordered an inquiry to ward off unwarranted controversies. Authors and artists do have the right to express their inner feelings in their ways. During inquiries, they found that his expressions did not aim at hurting anyone, and his writing cannot be dubbed as pornography. The ban on his book may be withdrawn soon" (ibid).
The four-month-long ban and a year-long suspension have had an impact on Shekhar's writing. “I have started thinking of repercussions. Earlier, I only thought about how my story or writing would turn out. Now I also wonder if anyone might be offended and in what ways, by what I write,” he said. "Perhaps a message has been sent to other authors as well, through banning my book", added Shekhar. During his suspension, he was struggling to make ends meet. "It was a bad time and I do not want to remember it,” he said. "Going forward I am not sure writing is a sustainable profession. But since I enjoy writing, I will continue with it", explained Shekhar. It is unfortunate to witness that even after so many years of independence, the Adivasis in India remain in chains. Controlling the narratives of Adivasis and other marginalized groups serves the sole purpose of keeping the social fabric intact, which is hierarchical and discriminatory, and beneficial only for the power holders in the society.
Shreya Bansal is a social justice and investigative journalist based in Delhi, India. Their work focuses on issues of gender and its intersectionality with other marginalised identity.