“Silencing a voice nips in the bud the prospect of resolution”: A Santal educator’s case against the banning of a controversial book – Jharkhand

Discussion is the Need of the Hour, Not Banning
by Boro Baski, Anandabazar Patrika , 8 September, 2017
translated by Maroona Murmu, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Jadavpur University

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s collection of stories The Adivasi Will Not Dance has been in the eye of the storm. On August 11, 2017 the Jharkhand government banned the book saying it had shown adivasi (Santal) women “in a bad light.” While a section of the adivasis are of the opinion that Sowvendra Shekhar’s representation of the life of Santal women is distorted and he writes nothing but “porn”, others are vocal against the banning of the book. To my understanding, there are two problems surrounding this controversy. The physical relationship of Talamai a Santal girl with a diku railway policeman for Rs. 50 and two cold bread pakoras and Talamai being a Christian. Religion and sex are two very sensitive issues among the Santals which have traditional and historical background. It is natural that any writing dealing with such sensitive issues needs restrained and delicate handling.

In the authoritative text on the traditions and institutions of the Santhals, Horkoren Mare Hapramko Reak Katha, the Santhal preceptor Kolean Haram states, ‘In search of food and water and to protect the honour of our women, we have from time immemorial migrated from one place to another like silk worms.’ This peregrination is further elucidated by the Dasai ceremony on the occasion of Durga Puja when Santal men dance about in various villages in search of their missing women amongst the dikus.

There is no place to escape any longer and the situation is dire. Following natural instinct, the Santals are rising in rage against various injustices. If the employer misbehaves, the migrant labourers along with their leader register their protest and leave the place. If the same employer returns to the village again, there is instance of him facing public beating. Though there has not been any improvement in the real situation. In recent times there is a marked change in the mode of protest by the adivasis. The furor over the sexual abuse of four adivasi girls at municipal bus stand on 9 July, 2017 in Raniganj is a case in point.

The same has happened in case of Sowvendra Shekhar’s story. Talamai had no option but to offer herself to a diku policeman that night. In an alien land with unknown people and language, where the protector is the aggressor, resistance is not a judicious choice. The speechless submission is also a sign of protest. In her frigidity and coldness there contains deep-seated rage and abhorrence for her aggressor. But over-simplification of a complex concern by the writer has toned down the entire issue.

Even in the last story of the collection ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’, the issue of conversion of Santals to Christianity has been shown in lighter vein. While it is true that conversion has resulted in changing of traditional religion and customs of adivasis, it is equally true that missionaries have helped in dissemination of modern education, have taken care of health issues. Christian missionaries are the pioneers who started various developmental programmes amongst the adivasis. To relieve themselves from poverty, illiteracy, shamans, exorcisers, witch-hunting, to impart modern education to their children, many Santals have voluntarily converted to Christianity. Reflection of such nuanced understanding would have added value to Sowvendra Shekhar’s writing. Moreover what does it matter in changing one’s name! Sowvendra has brought to light these aspects of the Santal society. Thus expectation from him remains high.

It is unfortunate that through this controversy, there is a competition amongst Santals to prove who is more authentic than the other. Santals traditionally have the culture of ‘Galmarao’ (resolution of problems through discussion). Rather than taking recourse to it, Santals are taking refuge in legal proceedings. One can have discussions in several forums on this controversial book. Banning of a book or silencing a voice nips in the bud the prospect of resolution. One might be elated to secure the banning of a book through intervention of the state and political parties but for the comprehensive development of the Santal society, this is suicidal.

Source: courtesy Dr. Boro Baski by email (10 September 2017)

Tip | Read more by the above author(s):

The Johar Journal
The Johar Journal (द जोहार जर्नल ) is an online open-access, peer-reviewed, biannual journal on Adivasi, tribal and indigenous issues with particular focus on tribal literatures in translation.
https://joharjournal.org >>

Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia
YouTube video presentations “Tribes in Transition III” (September 2021) >>

“We cannot let our culture and society stop …”

Santali poet, scholar and translator
Dr. Ivy Hansdak (Editor-in-Chief, The Johar Journal)

In Anthropological Perspectives on Indian Tribes, another insightful book published last year, the anthropologist Subhadra Mitra Channa writes that people categorised as tribes are not merely remnants of a static past. She reminds us that tribal religions and customary laws are as relevant as organised religions and institutionalised laws in modern society, and refers to the morungs of the Nagas, the dhumkuria of the Santals and the gotuls of the Gonds as equivalents to schooling systems in mainstream societies. She also suggests that tribes are separate from Hindu society (except for tribes such as the Bhotiya, Rajputs living along the Indo-Tibetan border). Channa argues that implicit to theories such as Sankritisation is an evolutionary approach towards tribes, implying that there is a ladder towards attaining higher status under the fold of caste Hindus. This erases the history of “domination, and of hierarchies within politics,” between tribes and others.

Tribes are people with a functional social order, culture, customs, cosmology and metaphysics. They must be treated as any other contemporary people. I attempt to question the representation of tribes so far, and also try to foreground the intrusive ways in which assimilation was foisted upon tribes. The writer Ruby Hembrom, who is the founder of Adivaani—a publisher of Adivasi writing—told me that engaging with the writing of anthropologists writing about tribes is “a call to tribal conscience to address these [writers] head-on, without fear, as a way of setting records straight and challenging the primitivism they’ve thrown at us as exotic uncultivated people. This is finally exercising our agency to assert our true identities; a way to liberate the image and reputation of our ancestors and ourselves that has been chained to dehumanization by these writings’ imposed impressions of us.” […]

Interventions intending to impose religion onto tribes have attempted to assimilate them into mainstream society by diluting their uniqueness. For tribes, the links between culture and religion are integral to shaping their ways of life.

Source: “Uncivilising the Mind: How anthropology shaped the discourse on tribes in India” by Richard Kamei (Caravan Magazine, 1 March 2020)
URL: https://caravanmagazine.in/books/anthropologists-tribes-india
Date visited: 18 September 2021

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

More commentaries by noted publicists

Dance of the Santhal by Martin Kämpchen | The Statesman, Kolkata, 20 August 2017 | Read the full article >>

A witch hunt is being orchestrated against an author who chooses to be different. The social evil of witch hunting with which Santal society has been stigmatized in the public mind is being resurrected. This is very painful to see […]

One educated Santal friend of mine pointed out to me that conflicts in Santal villages are generally resolved through discussion in which the entire adult village population participates (unfortunately, so far, only the male members are called). I have myself sat through such meetings in a village at some distance from Santiniketan. They may drag on through half of the night, but they will generally conclude with a peaceful, consensual solution. This talent for conflict resolution is admirable. Why, I ask myself, does this spirit not pervade the present conflict? Instead, what I hear being said now is that a witch hunt is being orchestrated against an author who chooses to be different. The social evil of witch hunting with which Santal society has been stigmatized in the public mind is being resurrected. This is very painful to see.

The author has worked with Santals in the area of education for the last thirty years.

The ‘Legitimate’ Writer and his ‘Illegitimate’(?) Writings by Sudipto Mukhodhyay | Mainstream Weekly, VOL LV No 35 August 19, 2017 | Read the full article >>

The ongoing protest on Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s writings and the debates over their legitimacy (to the claim of an accolade from the Sahitya Academy) and authenticity (in representing the Santhali community) lead us to ponder over a few things which are integral to the study of Indian writing in English today. We believe one has the right to write and one surely has the right to protest. But the methods could be put at stake for our discussion here.

Herein, one would focus on two separate and yet integrally connected points: firstly, his claims to represent the ‘real’ of his own community; and secondly, how far this writing could be a vanguard to the writings of the Santhali community hereafter. […]

If Hansda Sowvendra’s persistent condescension to his collective invites him to dislocate himself from his roots, then his writings must assure us that it could draw attention not as a writer writing in English from the ‘margins’ but a writer worthy enough to compete from the ‘centre’ along with other progressive writers of repute, and to win accolades from institutions measuring their competence.

Sudipto Mukhopadhyay is currently employed as an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Subhas Chandra Bose Centenary College, Kalyani University, West Bengal.

Petition “Solidarity with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar” on sabrangindia.in | Read the full text with list of signatories >>

We are bewildered and dismayed to learn about the recent banning of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, by the Government of Jharkhand. This ban is absurd and sets a dangerous precedent.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. The same article, admittedly, allows the state to make laws that impose “reasonable restrictions” on this fundamental right, but only based on specific grounds (such as national security or public order), none of which apply in this case. […]

The ban on The Adivasi Will Not Dance is not only deplorable in itself but also adds to a series of dangerous precedents of books being banned on flimsy grounds in India. This ban mania (also targeted at films, events, statements, tweets, foods, relationships and what not) is an ominous attack on freedom, democracy and rationality.

[Signed by concerned citizens including eminent writers, scholars and activists]

Dr. Ivy Hansdak

“[A] common perception of conversion, prevalent in India, is that all conversions take place only among deprived lower caste or tribal groups, which are considered more susceptible to allurement or coercion. The reality of upper caste conversions is ignored in this climate of cynicism.”– Dr. Ivy Imogene Hansdak in Pandita Ramabai Saraswati: the convert as ‘heretic’

Tip: for up-to-date reports on “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” in the Indian press, type “Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar”, “conversion of tribals”, “Santal women”, or the names of the above commentators in the search window below

Reports in the Indian press | List of periodicals included in this search >>

Find up-to-date information provided by, for and about Indian authors, researchers, officials, and educatorsMore search options >>
Search tips: in the search field seen below, combine the name of any particular state, language or region with that of any tribal (Adivasi) community; add keywords of special interest (health, nutrition endangered language, illegal mining, sacred grove); learn about the rights of Scheduled Tribes such as the Forest Rights Act (FRA); and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights, and children’s right to education; specify any other issue or news item you want to learn more about (biodiversity, bonded labour and human trafficking, climate change, ecology, economic development, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, global warming, Himalayan tribe, hunter-gatherers in a particular region or state, prevention of rural poverty, water access).