Jharkhand Bans Sahitya Akademi-Winning Author's Book for 'Negative' Portrayal of Santhals

Author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar had earlier said he was facing intense online abuse, and a group of Adivasis had taken out a protest against him, burning his effigy and books.

New Delhi: The Jharkhand government has banned a collection of short stories released in 2015, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, on the grounds that it portrayed the Santhal community, particularly women, in a ‘bad light’, the Telegraph reported.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, the author of the book, won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puruskar in 2015 for his novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey.

Chief minister Raghubar Das on Friday (August 11) evening asked chief secretary Rajbala Verma to seize all available copies of the book and initiate legal proceeding against the author, the newspaper’s report said. The matter was brought up in parliament on Friday morning by opposition MLA Sita Soren, from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, who said the book was derogatory to Santhal women, after which the leader of the opposition in the assembly Hemanta Soren asked that the book be banned.

BJP MLA Laxman Tudu also brought up the matter. Referencing an article in Hindustan, Tudu said the book was insulting to Santhal women. “As per the news report, one of the stories paints such an objectionable picture that action must be taken. The story says that the woman agreed to go to bed with anybody in lieu of something to eat. Is it not objectionable?” Indian Express quoted him as saying.

Shekhar has alleged that he has been facing continuous online harassment and abuse since the publishing of his book. “This attack has been going on since November 2015, a month after my second book came out,” Shekhar told The Wire on August 3. “While some of the profiles abusing me are anonymous or fake profiles, some are also well known people from the community. They have said things like I am a porn writer, that I slept with my publishers to get published, they attacked my friends and so on. When it first started, neither I nor my friends responded – we thought it would just go away.”

However, the protests against Shekhar and his work only intensified. On August 4, a group of Adivasis in Pakur, Jharkhand, where Shekhar works as a doctor, took out a protest against the author, burning his books and an effigy. This act as well as the online harassment Shekhar faced was condemned by a group of writers including Nayantara Sehgal, Anand Teltumbde, K. Satchidanandan, T.M. Krishna, Jerry Pinto, Githa Hariharan and others. ““Criticism of writing cannot be a matter of hurt sentiment, taking offence, or hounding a writer. Indeed, this recalls the experience of Perumal Murugan, who was attacked by a community claiming he had offended their sensibilities. The Madras High Court subsequently reaffirmed Murugan’s right to write, quoting Voltaire: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it’,” the writers said in a statement.

Photographer Vivek Menezes has also written in the Times of India condemning the actions against Shekhar and praising his work. “Shekhar is a startling and unique talent. There is literally no one else like him. Just 34 years old, he writes in an engaging style from and about a cultural universe otherwise entirely absent from Indian letters — the tribal firmament in rapidly changing, contemporary India. It’s never fair to burden limitlessly talented young writers with comparisons, but here it is impossible to ignore deeply resonant similitude with the African-American pioneer James Baldwin,” Menezes has written.

The book and effigy burning protest in Pakur, Jharkhand. Courtesy: Ivy Imogene Hansdak

The book and effigy burning protest in Pakur, Jharkhand. Courtesy: Ivy Imogene Hansdak

Speaking to the Telegraph on Friday, Sehgal said, “In a democratic society, no government has the right to ban a book someone disagrees with.”

Those running the campaign against Shekhar’s work say it demeans Santhal people and borders on ‘pornographic’. Ivy Imogene Hansdak, assistant professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, who has written several posts on social media condemning Shekhar, even wrote to the Sahitya Akademi about taking back the award given to the author. “While the author does belong to tribal society, his novel betrays the stereotypical attitude of an educated class within that society which denigrates the unlettered tribal people as primitive savages who spend their time drinking, dancing and love-making. During the colonial period, anthropologists had written books on tribal sexuality that had given rise to misconceptions which persist even today. Hence, tribal women are often considered promiscuous and not given the respect they deserve. They are often sexually abused while working as domestic workers in cities and their complaints dismissed by the police. In this novel, the author also reiterates the same attitude towards tribal women by objectifying their bodies,” Hansdak wrote in her letter.

In an email to The Wire, Hansdak said she supported the effigy and book burning. “I endorse this protest because the writer has hurt the sentiments of the Santhal Adivasi people, who belong to the margins of Indian society,” she said.

However, not all who disagree with Shekhar’s work think an effigy and book burning was an appropriate response.  “Abuse and effigy burning won’t solve disagreements – I have never met him, but the better thing would be to try and engage in dialogue and not assume that he is unwilling to listen to our criticism,” Adivasi activist Gladson Dungdung told The Wire earlier.