Freedom of expression

A Santhal suppressed

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Photo: The Hindu

A Santhal tribesman at a protest in Kolkata demanding the inclusion of the Santhali script, Ol-Chiki, in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. A file picture. Photo: Parth Sanyal

Once hailed as the brave new voice from Jharkhand, the award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar faces allegations of maligning the Santhals in his second book, which the Jharkhand government has banned on the charge of obscenity.

WHEN the author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance was first released in 2015, there was just a ripple of curiosity, a nod of appreciation. And the inevitable murmur of protest from the moral brigade. It was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2016 and discerning readers saw in Sowvendra a brave new voice from the predominantly tribal belt of Jharkhand, while others found in him a storyteller with a difference whose writings carried the scent of the soil. The book seemed destined to be a steady earner, moving off the shelves like the sun sets rather than set a river aflame. Sowvendra himself accepted all the compliments in his usual self-effacing way.

The peace and quiet and hopes of a steady business, however, ended with a Facebook post and an online article by Sowvendra. There was moral outrage and allegations of Sowvendra maligning the Santhals of Jharkhand. The complainants included the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and JMM (Jharkand Mukti Morcha) coalition government of Jharkhand, the opposition parties and an academic from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

First, they expressed their ire online. Sowvendra decided to stay offline, away from Facebook. And for a brief while, he did not take phone calls or answer WhatsApp messages. He even refused media interactions. It turned out that he was acting like an ostrich to the rampaging multitudes. Soon his opponents hit the streets of Ranchi, burnt effigies of him and banned his book.

And just when one thought his woes could not possibly get worse, Sowvendra, a medical officer who works in tribal areas, was suspended from his government job. “They issued a show-cause notice on August 11, giving me 24 hours to respond. However, they suspended me without giving me an opportunity to explain myself,” recalls Sowvendra. “They can lodge an FIR, file a charge sheet, anything. I went off the mobile phone and Facebook. It was too much to take. I do not know when the suspension will be revoked. I am hopeful because there is no evidence of wrongdoing on my part.”

By all accounts, The Adivasi Will Not Dance was banned without being read by the people who protested against it. Sowvendra was suspended from service for not seeking permission to pen a work of fiction.

Sowvendra is too shaken to relate his side of the story. All he can manage is “I am too embarrassed to recall all that I went through. I am too embarrassed for my opponents, the kind of filthy language they used, the allegations they hurled. It is all too distressing. And to think there was an assistant professor of Jamia Millia Islamia, too, among those casting aspersions.” Sowvendra was accused of penning obscene verses, indulging in pornography, and projecting the Santhal culture in a wrong manner. “I cannot hurt the tribal cause. I am a tribal myself,” is all he offers in his defence in a telephonic conversation from Pakur town, about 400 kilometres from Ranchi.

When the ban was mooted unanimously in the Jharkhand legislative Assembly, the government referred to a short story titled “November is the Month of Migration” in the collection. The story is on the plight of a desperately poor woman who offers herself to a policeman in return for a plate of food and a few rupees. The story hurts. It rankles. And, as Sowvendra discovered, it provokes. The government found it offensive to the dignity of a tribal woman. Some even found the story pornographic. Soon, Chief Minister Raghubar Das ordered that copies of the book be confiscated. He also ordered legal action against the author under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which carries a jail sentence for up to two years.

However, Sowvendra is not alone in his fight. “I have been very fortunate [in] the way people in general, and authors, activists and journalists in particular, have joined my fight. I feel much better,” Sowvendra says.

Solidarity and support

Indeed, there was an outpouring of support for him not just from social activists and fellow writers such as Tabish Khair, Sudeep Sen, Rahman Abbas, Anees Salim, Shovon Chowdhury and Ruchir Joshi, but also bankers, chartered accountants, doctors, professors and journalists.

Meetings in support of Sowvendra were held in places as far off as Kolkata and Aligarh, Panaji and New Delhi. Hailing Sowvendra as the brave new voice of Indian writing in English, some even went on to draw parallels with Premchand and Mahasweta Devi.

Fellow Adivasi writers like Mridul Haloi, Sandeep Sufi and Sudip Chakravorty spoke up too. There were online petitions of protest against the ban on the book. Supporters of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner found the ban “absurd” and said it set “a dangerous precedent”. “The book does include some sexually explicit scenes, but calling them ‘indecent’ would be extreme prudishness. If books that include lovemaking scenes were to be banned, hundreds of thousands would have to be banned, not to speak of the Kamasutra,” said an online statement signed by over a hundred writers, academics, artists and professionals. Even Amnesty International came out in support of Sowvendra.

“I still fail to understand how a book published two years ago suddenly upset people. Maybe it was an article I penned for Scroll, where I talked of the Santhali script, that ignited it,” Sowvendra says.

Ol-Chiki and Santhali identity

As Sowvendra recalls, the protests against the portrayal of Adivasis in the book started after the author posted on his Facebook account an article he had penned about Ol-Chiki, the standard script accepted by the government of India to write the Santhali language. Many Santhal groups, though, want the language to be written in Roman script. Sowvendra was caught in the crossfire in the age-old battle for identity based on the script of the language. “I can see a connection. Maybe the obscenity charges are a facade. But anybody who accuses me of projecting the Santhali women in a wrong way does not know me. I am a tribal. I won’t do anything to hurt the community,” he says, alluding to the piece he had written earlier this year in which he voiced his concern over the plight of the community. “The position of the Santhals is still not worth singing and dancing about. Those who have the means to better themselves, they are doing well. Those who have nothing, well, they have nothing.”

Sowvendra should know. Hailing as he does from Ghatsila, which was one of the centres of the Santhal Revolt in 1855, his opinion should matter. “If we ban books, so many stories will remain untold. The world should have its mirror,” Sowvendra states, and adds, “I am a tribal. I will never insult my brethren.”

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