Anushree Thareja: The Agony of Being Adivasi
Examining the Gulf between Tribal people and Development in the short stories of Hansda Sowendra Shekhar
According to the 2011 census the Adivasis (tribal people) make 8.6% of India’s population but their number rises considerably when it comes to people displaced because of development projects. It has been estimated that the adivasis account for one-third of the people displaced by large development projects. Thus, with the onslaught of capitalism and globalisation the adivasis have become a dispensable lot. Their land, livelihood and way of life are being taken away from them causing these people to become hapless victims of economic development. The grand narrative of development highlights the ideas like economic and industrial progress, the need for rapid urbanisation and the loss of the adivasi land as their small sacrifice for the greater good of the country. It establishes the supremacy of the global economic order and legitimises the authority of the state in all the affairs. Little attention is paid to the idea that such a model of development leads to the weakening of the democratic structure of our country by providing little room for resentment. Yes, there are protests by the communities who suffer, yet these fail to leave a lasting impact on the state especially in terms of making it realise its moral accountability in such cases. Moreover, on many occasions these protests by the tribal communities are dismissed as law and order situations.
This calls for a counter-narrative to the state-approved models of development. This counter narrative will allow the victims of economic and industrial development to register their resentment and tell the state authorities that their protests are because of the marginalisation they have experienced over the years.
The short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance (2015) by Hansda Sowendra Shekhar, a young writer from Jharkhand is one such counter narrative that successfully presents the heart rending accounts of people from the mineral-rich state. The author was born, raised, educated in Jharkhand and he lives and works in the state itself. Thus, the stories in the collection present a perspective from within. They reflect his understanding of the predicament of his people who feel destroyed as they witness the destruction of their land. They also answer the doubts of those people who think that how can the adivasis decide how the government should use the country’s resources and obstruct the process of development.
The story under examination is The Adivasi Will Not Dance. It has been inspired by an incident that occurred in 2013 in the Godda district of Jharkhand. Godda lies in the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand. Farmers from 11 Adivasi villages had gathered to protest against the land acquisition by an eminent industrial group. The land acquisition was for a thermal power project and the President of India had been invited for laying the foundation stone. More than 50 out of the 200 farmers who were staging the agitation were detained by the police. The President, in his speech, said that he would ensure the protection of tribal interests. The Director of the company stated that the land had been acquired with the consent of the people. And the police said that people had not been detained but were stopped from attending the inauguration ceremony because of overcrowding of the venue. The voice of protest could not gain much attention and was dismissed as a case of hullabaloo created by the tribal community.
The author takes up the case of the people of his community. He does not create his narrative out of what is happening around him; he asserts that whatever is happening around him is the narrative itself and deserves the attention of one and all. The protagonist of the story is a Santhal farmer, Mangal Murmu. This is how he introduces himself:
“My name is Mangal Mumru. I am a musician. No, wait... I am a farmer. Or... Was a farmer. Was a farmer is right. Because I don’t farm anymore.” (The Adivasi Will Not Dance 170)
Through his first-person narrative, Mangal Mumru throws light on the predicament of his people not only in the present times but the past as well. He reconstructs a history of his people that has failed to make it to the mainstream records. He tells us that in his village of Matiajore most farmers are no longer engaged in farming because they don’t possess any land. He tells that they have fought against the land acquisition. Some politicians and missionaries tried to support them but to no avail. They were defeated by greater powers and their cause was eventually abandoned by everyone. He also highlights the fact that because of their identity they become suspects of criminal offenses and are portrayed negatively. He illustrates his point with an incident in which the boys from his community were implicated in the murder of a Christian missionary. Everyone, says Mangal Mumru, highlighted the point that the Santhal boys killed someone who was fighting for their cause. Mangal Mumru feels that the Christian missionaries fighting for the cause of the tribal people get attention and recognition while their own people dedication to their cause are not acknowledged.
In this respect it is pertinent to note that the adivasis have been a part of a movement against oppression since the 18th century. They have tirelessly struggled against oppression, but their contribution to their own history remains largely unacknowledged. However, when Christian missionaries, who came in much later, took up the cause of the Adivasis, they received a lot of adulation. Here, I would also like to speak about the Santhal rebellion of 1855. The uprising began as a reaction against the corrupt money lenders, zamindars, and the British colonial rulers. The Santhals were mobilised and led by Seedo Mumru and Kanhu Mumru. The rebels attacked the houses of the money lenders, the zamindars, and the British officials. The rebellion was brutally crushed but along with other tribal uprisings, the Santhal rebellion managed to leave its mark in history. The courage and dignity of the Santhals was applauded by the British Army Officials and also by the eminent British writer Charles Dickens. However, mainstream historical records have not registered their contributions to the national movement and other social reform movements. Their cause was diffused in the nationalist struggle just like their concerns have been pushed to the periphery in the larger cause of nation building.
With this political and economic background, Mangal Mumru develops his discourse. He describes the working of the missionaries, the politicians, the industrialists and other people who try to encroach upon the land that belongs to his community. He resents the presence of the missionaries because they take the credit that is due to his people- the Santhal man and women for fighting for their land and their rights. This, he believes, is because they have friends in the media. Thus, he accuses the media of not being fair in the representation of their case. Then, the missionaries who set up schools for providing education to the adivasi children insist that their children convert to Christianity and worship Christ. They are made to realise that their names and traditions are not good enough and, thus they are given Christian names like ‘David, Mikail and Kiristofer and ‘insensible to ethics.’ (The Wretched of the Earth) Thus, it was the colonial discourse that constructed this essential otherness of the India’s tribal population.
The protagonist then explains how the merchants and the industrialists operate. They obtain the land that rightfully belongs to the tribals by fraud and force. Then, they portray it as if the advasi people have given their land by consent. These merchants and industrialists make huge sums of money by obtaining coal, iron ore and stone from the land usurped from the tribals. And, the tribal people are left languishing in poverty. Their land is their livelihood and when this land is taken from them, both their life and livelihood is assaulted. They can’t farm anymore because they don’t possess the land and thus, switch to other professions. They migrate to towns and cities and get employment in mines and factories. They start farming in the land that belongs to the landlords. Mangal Mumru painfully states: ‘Did I tell you? I was once a farmer. Once. My sons farm now. The eldest stays back to work our fields while the other two migrate seasonally to Namal along with their families’.
Mangal Mumru further explains how high caste Hindus and Muslims treat them: they are interested in their land and they consider them as objects of entertainment. Mangal also throws light on the health hazards that are being posed by rapid industrial development in the area. Acres of land are being converted into industrial sites. This land consists of agricultural land, non-agricultural land and forests. Forests are being cut down. The quality of air has become poor. The pollution being caused by industrial activities is adversely affecting the quality of life of the adivasis. ‘It is this coal, sir, which is gobbling us bit by bit. There is blackness-deep, indelible-all along the Koyla road. The trees and shrubs in our village bear blackleaves. Our ochre earth has become black. The stones, the rocks, the sand all black.’ (The Adivasi Will Not Dance 174)
He then comes to another important aspect of Santhal life- their song and dance. Dance and music forms the cultural core of tribal communities. It is a means of preserving their identity and heritage. Their art forms are a celebration of their way of life. There are also song and dance performances that highlight community issues like loss of land and the need for preserving their culture. As Mangal Mumru says: ‘Our music, our dance, our songs are scared to us Santhals. But hunger and poverty had driven us to sell what is sacred to us.’ (The Adivasi Will Not Dance 179)
This highlights the deplorable state of affairs in the adivasi community. As the corporate sector made inroads into their lives their regular means of livelihood, ie, farming was no longer left available for them and they had to find alternatives to earn their bread and butter. One of the means they resorted was to earn money through their art. They started performing at weddings and functions to feed their families. Then, the government officials invited them for high profile government functions to showcase Adivasi art and culture. Here, an important fact is highlighted: presentation of tribal culture as exotic for commercial purposes. Mangal Mumru laments that people lack the sensibility to appreciate tribal art. He feels sad that their audience do not even have the patience to watch the entire performance.
Mangal Mumru is himself an artist. He composes songs and maintains a dance troupe. He is passionate for his art and laments that he has to use it to earn his living. His love for his music is reflected in the manner in which he utters the following words: ‘I used to compose and set them to music. And my troupe, young man and women, they used to bring my songs to life through their dances, through their voices, through the rhythms of the tamak and the tumdak and the trilling of the tiriyo and the the banam’. (The Adivasi Will Not Dance 177)
He is invited to perform before the President of India in a high-profile function. The President is coming to inaugurate a thermal power plant that was being set up by an eminent industrialist. To set up the power plant inhabitants from eleven villages were forced to vacate their homes. Mangal Mumru’s daughter lived in one such village. Her husband was arrested while he was agitating against the government decision to displace the villagers. She came to her father’s place with her entire family. And, ironically the villagers who themselves went in search of work to other places as migrant labourers were now providing shelter to other migrants. A troop from one Adivasi village will sing and dance to entertain those who were there to mint money by displacing their fellow Adivasis from their homes. He takes this opportunity to voice his side of the story of development:
Johar, Rashtrapati-babu. We are very proud and happy that you have come to our Santhal Pargana and we are also very proud that we have been asked to sing and dance before you and welcome you to our place. We will sing and dance before you but tell us, do we have a reason to sing and dance? Do we have a reason to be happy? You will now start building the power plant, but this plant will be the end of all the Adivasi. These man sitting beside you have told you that this plant will change our fortunes, but these same men have forced us out our homes and villages. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to grow our crops. How can this power plant be good for us? How can we Adivasis dance and be happy? Unless we are given back our homes and land, we will not sing and dance. We Adivasis will not dance. The Adivasi will not- (The Adivasi Will Not Dance 187).
And, he couldn’t complete the sentence. He and the members of his troop were arrested and beaten up by the police.
This narrative presented before us in the words of Mangal Mumru, an Adivasi farmer and musician highlights the agony of being an adivasi in the times of industrial growth and expansion. The narrator and protagonist highlights the problems faced by the tribal groups in the age of development like development induced displacement, forced migration in search of work, lack of health and educational amenities, environmental degradation and objectification of tribal art. Moreover, he throws light on important beliefs of the Adivasi people like their love for singing and dancing, their naivety in commercial matters and their bonding with their tribesmen. Ganesh Devy makes some significant observations in this regard:
Acquisition is not a passion with the adivasis. Money and possession of land or cattle do not interest them beyond a point. Therefore, their work is not directed exclusively to the creation of wealth... They work in order to survive, not survive in order to work. As such, the adivasis have succeeded in creating an extraordinary amount of leisure time, which is used for rest, dance, song and the creation of small but beautiful objects of daily use that we invariably mistake for adivasi craft” (A Nomad Called Thief 6).
Also, by stating their history as rebels and by himself voicing his protest against the President, Mangal Mumru affirms the pride and identity of his community and draws attention towards the fact that the destiny of the Adivasi can’t be crushed for the so-called greater good of the nation.
While the story The Adivasi Will Not Dance depicts the various insecurities of the entire Adivasi community, the other story under examination November Is TheMonth of Migrations brings to light the vulnerability of Adivasi women. The author illustrates how the exploitation of land for commercial purposes drives the people out their homes and turns them into migrant labourers; and how this predicament is precarious for the women. The story describes the journey of a group of men, women and children making a journey to the Bardhaman district of West Bengal to work in the paddy fields belonging to the zamindars. The narrative focuses on the twenty year old girl Talamai Kishku who is travelling with her parents and sister. Her other family members have already moved to Bardhaman. Her family is Christian. Yet, the impoverished situation of her family shows that the promises of food and education made by the Christian missionaries have remained unfulfilled. This validates the resentment Mangal Mumru from The Adivasi Will Not Dance feels for the missionaries. Also, the author states that the name of this girl lacks thoughtful consideration. She was named so because she is the middle daughter of the family and Tala means middle and mai means girl. This observation is important because amidst the struggle for survival these impoverished tribal people are unable to decide on proper names for their children.
During her journey, a policeman from the Railway Protection Force offers her a little food and some money if she agrees to have sex with him. He asks her if she is hungry and would like to have some food and then directly puts forth her question: ‘Will you do some work for me?’ (November Is The Month Of Migrations 40) Her quick answer reflects that she is aware of it and also used to it. Her lack of reluctance depicts that how women in these areas have become conditioned to this kind of sexual exploitation in return for food and money. During the sexual act, the girl remains ‘passive, unthinking, unblinking,’ (November Is The Month Of Migrations 41) and the work gets done. In return she gets a cold bread pakoda and fifty rupees. In an indifferent manner, she keeps the money and eats the bread pakoda.
The story highlights the painful reality of abuse of adivasi migrants. Women are made to work for lower wages than men and also cater to the demands of the household and childcare. Also, they face sexual exploitation at the hands of contractors, policeman and others. The voice of these women are silenced by domestic and economic factors. Their nights are scary, their sleep is disturbed and nutrition and healthcare are inadequate. Through his stories the author Hansda Sowendra Shekhar takes up the case of these people who are being pushed into oblivion, asserts their identity and calls for change.
- Shekhar, Hansda Sowendra. The Adivasi Will Not Dance. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2015.
- Devy, Ganesh. “The Incomplete Blood Cell.” A Nomad called Thief. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2011.
- Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2001.
- Yadav, Anumeha. “Police Detain Adivasi Protesters as President lays foundation for Jindal Power Plant”. The Hindu May 01, 2013.
- Thru, Kelly A. “Acquisition of Land for Development Projects in India: The Road Ahead”. Research Foundation for Governance: in India, 2010.
- http://web.archive.org/web/20111026053131/http://www.historytution.com/early-resistance-british_rule/santal_rebellion_%28155-1856%.html Accessed March 31, 2017 01.20 am