The Hindu explains: From who is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar to Gorakhpur — where the tragedy struck in Uttar Pradesh

Who is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, fighting a ban

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  

From 2002 to 2015, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar gathered stories about his people, the Santhals of Jharkhand, for his collection The Adivasi will not Dance. It was published in 2015 to critical acclaim; just as his novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, which won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Purashkar the same year. Last Friday, August 11, the Jharkhand government banned The Adivasi will not Dance saying it had shown Santhal women “in a bad light.” The next day, it suspended the 34-year-old writer, a medical officer at a district health centre 400 km from the capital Ranchi, and asked him to explain his actions.

Why the drastic move?

The drastic move by the government two years after the book’s publication comes as a surprise. Protests against portrayal of Adivasis in the book coincidentally began to build up after Mr. Shekhar posted on his Facebook account an article about Ol-Chiki, the standard script accepted by the government of India to write Santhali. However, several Santhali groups, mostly the Christians, want the old language to be written in the Roman script. A tussle has been going on for the wider acceptance of Ol-Chiki, and Mr. Shekhar seems to be caught in the crossfire. Incidentally, the article he posted on his social media page was a year old, but the impact is being felt now. The trial against Mr. Shekhar first started on social media, with a group of Adivasis calling his writing about Adivasi women nothing but “porn.” They soon called for his ouster from Jharkhand, organised protest marches and burnt his effigy, prompting the government — after the Opposition too rallied against the writer — to ban the book.

What is the offending story?

One of the stories that appears to have irked the protesters and the Jharkhand government is November is for Migration, which appears in The Adivasi will not Dance. A brutal, raw, harsh look at the lives of ordinary people, it tells the story of a Santhal girl who sells her body for ₹50 and two cold bread pakoras. It’s about need and hunger, desperation and utter poverty; her plight is a distressing read. Mr. Shekhar, a Santhal himself, became one of his invisible characters while writing the stories. Also in the collection is the story about a troupe master Mangal Murmu, who wants to stop being a “toy” and refuses to dance for the visiting President; a prostitute who dares to fall in love; and the torture of a mother and widow, Baso-Jhi, after people in the village think she is a witch.

What’s the government saying?

After the issue was discussed in the Assembly last week, Chief Minister Raghubar Das directed the Chief Secretary to confiscate copies of the book and start legal proceedings. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Saryu Roy said the government was looking to slap a case on the writer under Section 295 of the IPC, which pertains to injuring or defiling a place of worship and carries a jail sentence of up to two years.

Have other writers suffered too?

Over the past two years itself, many writers, filmmakers and poets have felt the rage of the moral police all over the country. In 2015, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan announced his literary “death” after conservative groups sought a ban on his novel One Part Woman, written in 2010, saying it was prurient. In his case too, the protest came years later, and by people who may not have actually read the book. On July 5, 2016, the Madras High Court, in a 160-page judgment, declared that self-appointed censors cannot decide what we read and see. The Bench, headed by Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, said it was the duty of the authorities to ensure freedom of expression and not give in to demands of the mob in the name of preserving law and order. Concluding that there was nothing obscene in the novel, it also drew on the argument that eroticism is not unknown in Indian artistic tradition. It is not yet clear if the Jharkhand book ban is also headed to the court.

What happens next?

Academics, artists and writers, many with roots in Jharkhand, have written petitions against the ban. As for Mr. Shekhar, he says he is “fighting the ban by writing even more stories, articles and translations because my supporters want me to write even more, and fearlessly.” So, what lies ahead? “My writing and, hopefully, my job,” he quips.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 5:34:52 AM |

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