India’s coal belt cuts across the eastern states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, home to the Santhals among other tribal communities. As it did for much of the world since the industrial revolution, coal has played an important role in India’s march towards capitalism, and in the process, tied itself inextricably to the fates of such communities. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a collection of short, provocative and mostly apolitical stories that operate in the backdrop of a transformation that took place within such tribal populations, impacting their lands and their professions. Themes of destitution, prostitution and exploitation run through each story and detail the march of progress over a people’s plight.
The coup de grace is the book’s final story of an Adivasi who refuses to dance – hence the name – in front of a “Bengali President” at a function in the village of Godda to lay the foundation stone for an Indian billionaire’s thermal power plant. While the author avoids naming anyone, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the President in question is Pranab Mukherjee and the Indian billionaire MP is Naveen Jindal, and the story itself is based on an actual incident that took place in 2013.
We heard he was a very rich and shrewd man. He was also an MP. We also heard he likes polo – some game played with horses – and that his horses were far better off than all the Santhals of the whole of the Santhal Pargana.
I am far removed from the realities of the heartland, and in all honesty, some of the stories feel unremarkable to a mind incapable of grasping the enormity of state-sponsored marginalization and subjugation. I am also ashamed to admit that I know more about the history of racism and African Americans than I do about casteism in India. I’m reasonably certain that our progress, built on their plight as it is, is littered with countless events that could have been our moment of reckoning, not unlike George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in the West.
Which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? What jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do? Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier?
Perhaps an accurate reflection of my ignorance and insularity is that famous quote from The Game of Thrones, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” The book is an easy read, has a rating of 4.13 on goodreads, and was banned by the state government of Jharkhand in 2017 – which is another big reason to read it 🙂