If the people or government of Jharkhand disagree with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book, they should fight it with their own books and ideas, not with bans and burnings.
In conjunction with the increase in social intimidation and mob violence, which I think have an intentional common end, the Jharkhand government has decided to ban author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book The Adivasi Will Not Dance. The book, a collection of ten short stories, has been banned by the government for its ‘poor’ portrayal of Santhal Adivasi women, particularly in a story November is the Month of Migrations. We are told that protests were carried out by the locals in the town where Shekhar, a Santhal himself, practices medicine, and during these protests copies of his book were burned.
To violently protest the written word is the norm of the uncivilised and banning a book goes one step ahead into the darkness which awaits such a civilisation.
Welcome to the new India: democratic yes, but civilised?
Book burning, or tomecide as it is technically called, has a long and checkered history. It is essential that the common Indian of this new India understand this history and the consequences of the censorship of books. Right from the the burning of books in China’s Qin dynasty in 213 BC to the mass burning of Jewish books in Berlin by the Nazis in 1933, book burning has been the most ruthless form of censorship in the civilised world. Books have been burned because they were considered dangerous by tyrants, or even by societies of the times. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
The reasons behind banning a book can be multiple. Appeasement of an ethnic group (like the banning of Satanic Verses in India) or silencing an anti-state or anti-cult stance (like the banning of Dr Zhivago in the erstwhile Soviet Union) are the classical motives behind the book bans across the globe. To put it a tad simplistically, books are banned by the state so that the narrative of the author does not find ground in the society it caters to, thereby not allowing people to think differently or to even get a feel of an idea which does not conform to their beliefs, faith, attitudes, likings or deep-rooted societal norms. It is thus a means to control people’s thoughts, not letting them wander beyond what is considered conventional. In a country like ours riddled with caste, religion, creed, region and tribe, it is beyond imagination what the correct “conventional” can be. But surely leaving it to the state to construct a “conventional norm” is not only provocative but outright dangerous.
On the other hand, it is also important to see where authors like Shekhar draw their stories from. How are Adivasi woman characters like 20-year-old Talamai Kisku (who is compelled to have sex with a policeman for Rs 50 and two cold bread pakoras) born in Shekhar’s mind? Every character in a book is a representation of the times, past or present. Fictional characters do not represent people (though banning authorities often make this mistake), instead they represent the times and circumstances in which people live. So to believe that Talamai Kisku is a representation of Santhals in Jharkhand is a mistake, a blunder to say the least. She is a prototype used by Shekhar to depict the miserable and deplorable state of the Santhal Adivasis in that region. The focus therefore must be on their situation, not on them. We may hate the author for narrating the unsaid, but what other means does an author have at his or her disposal? Creativity is never completely realistic and it should never be. It is a combination of facts and fiction.
Also read: In Jharkhand’s Ban of Book on Adivasis, an Attempt to Deter Tribals From Dictating Their Future
Shekhar has been charged with depicting Santhal women in a negative light. On the contrary, reading the story of Talamai Kisku, I did not even for a fraction of a second think that she is represented in a poor light. Her situation is brimming with incalculable poignancy, making you empathise with her and immediately hate not her but the circumstances which brings misery to her being. She is the product of a beautiful creativity which adds life to her character. To believe that the author has shown Santhal women in a poor light is preposterous, to say the least.
Is banning books an effective weapon to silence the likes of Shekhar? Fortunately, it is not. Surprisingly, books (and authors) are the hardest to burn or ban. You may burn a book, but the smoke of words penetrates deep into the consciousness of people. People may be carried away momentarily by random, divisive opinions, as is the case with the populace against Shekhar, but in the end, there is a realisation of the truth. Books have an uncanny knack for surviving the brutal force of the state or the tyrants of their time. Like ideas, they keep growing, just like the winter jasmine which flowers in the severest of winters or the desert rose which blooms in the harshest of summers. Banning a book makes it immortal.
The idea of banning a book is also fundamental to the debate on freedom of expression. The concept of freedom of expression should be crystal clear. This freedom remains incomplete without dissent, criticism (of the powerful) and, to an extent, the ability to offend the sensibilities of common people. To say the unthinkable, to see what others overlook and to write what others avoid writing is what constructs this freedom. My friends argue that freedom of expression should have limitations as it can touch a raw nerve, and I completely agree with them. But what right does anyone have to burn books or ban them altogether, even if they go against the sensibilities of others? The answer to a book is a book. The answer to an idea is an idea. To be offended by a book should be a provocation strong enough to write a rebuttal. Civility calls for graciousness not barbarity, and burning books is the barbarity which has been unleashed by some of the most brutal rulers who have walked the face of the Earth.
In a free, democratic society, books should be debated, argued and academically discussed, even if they seem to hurt the sensibilities of a group of people. Dialogue is the only means to defeat an idea. Books can be dangerous and they should continue to be dangerous. They carry between their covers ideas which can change this world. We may not agree with that idea, but that does not give us the right to be the thought police. Books which offend the sensibilities of people are best left for the people to reject. Poorly-written books never travel long. The involvement of the state in deciding which book is to be read and which not is the worse form of domination, more so when we are living in oppressive times.
In the words of Salman Rushdie, “A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
Shah Alam Khan is a professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at AIIMS, New Delhi. Views are personal.