In Jharkhand's Ban of Book on Adivasis, an Attempt to Deter Tribals From Dictating Their Future

While the state government lost no time in banning a book on the grounds that it portrayed the Santhal women in a bad light, it has done little to solve the issues of unemployment and widespread hunger plaguing the community.

Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das (left) and author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar who's book on adivasis has been banned. Credit: PTI/Facebook

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das (left) and author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Credit: PTI/Facebook

Exactly what Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das wanted has happened. His government was not too happy with Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. The reason is simple: Shekhar is outspoken and did not align with the kind of ideology that the party in power in Jharkhand (BJP) wants to thrust upon the people of the country. Shekhar is a medical doctor with the Jharkhand government and posted in Pakur district in the north-eastern part of the state. Perhaps his literary proclivity made him use his name a bit differently, by making the family name, Hansda, his first name. Shekhar he has made his inclination toward thinking differently and distinct ways of life quite clear, beyond the name he chooses to be known by.

Take for example his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of short stories, which Das’s government has banned. A complaint was raised that the third story in the collection, ‘November is the Month of Migration’, was found to be deprecating of the honour of the Santhal women as it presented one as selling her body to a non-Santhal man for two pieces of bread pakora and a sum of Rs 50. But it was perhaps the first story of the collection, ‘They Eat Meat’, set in the background of the infamous Gujarat pogrom of 2002, that added to the infuriation of the government, which has been waiting to find the right opportunity to teach the writer a lesson. And Hemant Soren, opposition leader in the state assembly, and other parties, offered on a platter the government just that: a demand to punish the erring writer. Das lost no time – for it actually more than delighted the state head and his party – in immediately imposing a ban on the book and setting up an inquiry committee against Shekhar.

Santhal adivasis

The writer himself belongs to the Santhal adivasi community, which is numerically among the largest indigenous groups. The majority of the Santhal population is spread across Jharkhand (2.75 m), West Bengal (2.51 m), Odisha (0.9 m), Bihar (0.4 m) and Assam. The Santhal population is not recorded in Assam, where they were made to migrate following the great Santhal upsurge of 1855, as they have not been given the status of scheduled tribe (population of individual communities are recorded in the census only for SCs and STs). Why it has not been given ST status in Assam is primarily related to the particular political economy of the state. Jharkhandi adivasis had reclaimed the lands and form a substantial part of the manual labour force, particularly in the tea gardens. The Assamese ruling class does not want to share even the slightest of opportunities for the Jharkhandi adivasis to take part in the upper echelon by making use of their ST status. Instead, the Assamese ruling class has been instrumental in inciting ethnic conflicts, which resulted in one of the largest genocides in the country in the 1990s, when thousands of Santhals were killed and an equal number were uprooted by the Bodo extremists.

The condition of the adivasis in other states is not radically different, but at least they enjoy the constitutional safeguard of positive discrimination, which created some, albeit limited, opportunities to get rid of the historically set trend of adverse incorporation in the society as manual labourers. The fact that Shekhar and some others could manage to take part in the upper crust of the society and could speak for themselves is due, to a large extent, to the constitutionally provided policy of positive discrimination. Nevertheless, positive discrimination alone cannot abolish the age-long social, economic and political discriminations that adivasis in the country have been facing.

Non-negotiable interventions required making positive discrimination fully effective, but opportunities of educational achievement in particular, and other social policies in general, are largely absent. For example, the literacy rate among the adivasis of Jharkhand is only 57%. Among the Santhals it is as low as 51%, with an abysmally lower female literacy rate of 39%. The district Shekhar is posted in, and where some Santhals have allegedly protested against his painting a derogatory picture of Santhal women, has the tenth lowest female literacy rate (42%) among all districts in the country.

On the economic front, of the main workers among the Santhals of Jharkhand, 29% depend upon agricultural labour, and among the women the percentage goes up to 38%. A deeper probe shows that those who are registered as cultivators (38%) can actually meet the household requirement of food from cultivation for six months a year at best. A closer look into the Santhal societies across the state shows that more than 90% of the population depends upon one or another kind of manual work, and even that is not guaranteed. The 2011 Census has recorded only 40% of the Santhals as main workers – those who found employment for 183 days or more in a year. In other words, the household economy of Santhals – and other adivasis – is marked by low-paid wage work, very poor income and unemployment, which in turn results in widespread hunger, undernutrition, ill health and often, early death.

Uprising of 1855

The economic background of the Santhals, like other adivasis, finds its root in the colonial aggression. First, the colonial rulers invited the Santhals to Santhal Pargana with the promise of not charging land revenue, but within 35 years they broke the promise and imposed heavy rent on those very lands that the Santhals, using their knowledge of settled agriculture, had reclaimed and had been cultivating. The failure to pay the rent resulted in colossal land alienation, which led to the Santhals rising in revolt in 1855.

Following the revolt, the colonial government took a series of measures: crushing the revolt by the might of modern weapons; creation of the district of Santhal Pargana (now divided into Deoghar, Dumka, Jamtara, Godda, Pakur and Sahibganj) by carving out areas from Bhagalpur and Birbhum districts to bring the Santhals into a separate, and closer, administration; enacting the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act to protect to some extent the land rights of the Adivasis in the district; and taking a large population to Assam to resettle. Fragmented and displaced from lands they had reclaimed, the erstwhile self-sufficient Santhals of Santhal Pargana became proletariat. And, from then on, seasonal migration has become a part of their lives.

In 2001, when I was conducting my fieldwork on seasonal migration and staying with a Santhal migrant worker’s family in a village for a whole agricultural year, a migrant worker told me: “My grandfather went to Bardhaman; there was no bus service at that time, so he walked carrying my father on his shoulder, my grandmother walked, carrying the cooking pots and utensils on her head; my father, when grown up, went to Bardhaman, so did my mother; they carried me and my other siblings. By then buses started plying on the Dumka-Rampurhat (railhead) road; and now I go to Bardhaman. In my grandfather’s time there was only one crop in Bardhaman, so they used to go only once a year; but now, two rice crops are grown – so we go twice. Bardhaman is our rice bowl – without the rice fields of Bardhaman we would have died of hunger. It is our fate.”

Ground situation in Bardhaman

Buses have shortened the journey time of the labourers. In older days, “people had to walk for five-six days to reach the destination village; now it’s a matter of a day – out in the morning and reach the employers house in the evening.” But it has, at the same time, made the journey terrifyingly harder, particularly for the women, since they are “packed into the bus the way the chicken trader pack the poultry in his tiny basket.” And for the men of different origin – the babus – the journey is a delicious free meal. And, they declare this with pride: “Santhal auratiyake chuchi malne me jo anand aata hai na ­– what a pleasure it is to fondle the breasts of the Santhal women [taking advantage of the crowd].” Some even blissfully remember the pleasure they had had by ejaculating while standing behind a woman migrant. The dreadful journey does not end even after reaching the destination: awaits there the employer, or his son, or his brother, or a neighbor – leer personified.

A woman told me: “What can we do? Of course, we can say no; but how many of us can risk our income? You make a noise, and you are out from work. First, we are foreigners at Bardhaman; and second we are hungry, and without any choice but to work in the fields…Not all the employers are bad. Many of them behave well, and we women prefer to work for them. But you cannot always get what you prefer.”

Shekhar has told readers one such story of a vulnerable woman’s surrendering to a Diku – non-Santhal – man’s sex drive. It’s not an imaginary one; it is a very real story of many real people. It is another matter, however, whether the story passes the standards of narration and storytelling. To me, the story is not a remarkable one; it lacks the required craftsmanship, depth, as well as material. I think he has not done justice to this story, and some others in the collection. I say this because I had the opportunity of reading – and also commenting on in the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika – his novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, which is his first published creative writing.

The novel proves his fine storytelling ability. (Some culture-purist Santhals, however, found some of the erotic descriptions in the novel unpalatable. Of course they have the right to disagree and must debate in public about the novel. In fact, debates and discussions are the backbone of the Santhal social structure – at least as far as I know from my association with the Santhals from my childhood; I was almost raised in a Santhal household.) I think Shekhar has failed to meet the standards he had set in his debut work. Yet, in someone else’s reading it can appear differently, a story of good narrative technique, plot, and depth. After all, literature is primarily and most importantly about the plurality of reading. Mobs, politicians, or a connivance of both do have the freedom to disagree with either the content or the form, or both, of a literary text, but their freedom stops there: a demand of ban or punishment for the author is utterly outrageous. And it becomes more unacceptable when a tiny – microscopic – section of the society decides the fate of a creative piece, judging it by their own standards of self-righteousness and not by the merit of the writing itself.

With this, one can also ask opposition leader Soren what he and his party have done to stop the exploitations and atrocities perpetuated on the adivasis of Jharkhand, and elsewhere, every day. His father, Shibu Soren, the guruji, led in the 1980s a protracted battle to reclaim the adivasis’ alienated lands, and the roguish trade of mahajani that charged the adivasis 50% rate of interest per annum (no matter whether the loan was taken in January or in September, the borrower had to pay interest for the whole year). He did achieve some success, but only some – after the struggle calmed down, exploiters reappeared with their fangs. Yet, people remember that struggle and the politico-social capital that guruji had accumulated earned his son the status of the opposition leader. But has he done justice to his status? Has he shown any respect for the people who have voted him to the assembly? Has he done anything to improve the dreadful state of education? Has there been any move to improve the status of literacy so that all can read and write – and can judge the texts written on them on their own? Has he taken any note of the completely rotten system of delivery of health for the adivasis? Has he made any statement against the terribly poor functioning of the public programs like NREGEA and PDS? What have he and others done to stop the state government from thrusting upon them total dominance of the non-adivasis by curbing their rights – however limited – ascertained in the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act?

Most of all, what have they done to change the situation that makes the unwilling women apparently willing to sell their body? Soren and his colleagues’ demand to scrap the book demonstrates their moral bankruptcy and seizure of political imagination. The BJP, by now, is well known for its maddened fondness for pursuing anti-adivasi – inter alia anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit – policies. In the name of democratic election it has placed non-adivasi chief ministers in states with substantial adivasi populations (Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand). It is now aggressively moving toward curbing the legal rights of the adivasis. At this point of time, alas, Soren and most of the opposition parties in Jharkhand, rather than fighting the anti-people policies of the government, have fallen into the trap of the ruling power and given it a solid supportive hand. And yes, Das wanted just this – ban the adivasis from reading, writing and determining their own future.

Kumar Rana is a social researcher and activist.