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The Question of Literature and Adivasi Expression

What is the use of reading Literature? As an English literature researcher, I have been asked this question more than once. And believe me, every time I answer this question it seems like a new kind of agitation hitting my mind altogether. Literature has given me words, expressions and, most importantly, perspective. But is the evolution of human perception, which I count as the utmost gain, also what everyone else considers utility?

Scientific research has established how mental health is as important as physical health. So, any gain in mental health such as development of perspective or understanding stages of well-being is as useful as the gain in physical health that comes from investing in food, clothes, exercise and so on. And if utility is determined on the basis of gain, then the gain of words, knowledge and especially perspective establishes the utility of reading Literature. But apart from providing access to different words (which a dictionary can also provide) and the happenings of the world (that are outlined in newspapers and encyclopaedias), how does the process of gaining perspective through Literature actually work?

Let's try to understand this by decoding the meaning of the ubiquitous but oft-misunderstood word - “development” - that is often connected with utility in a literary context. In order to establish how literature helps us in building perspectives and rethinking the basis of our knowledge, I will situate the meaning of development in a well-known anthology of short stories by a tribal writer. Through this process, I will outline ways literature helps us in developing perspectives. Development as a process helps people attain their human potential. While individual development is centred towards growth, the government, with its construction of mines, dams and power plants, supposedly tries to improve the material conditions of its citizens, therefore adding towards the overall process of the “development” of society. While on the one hand, such projects prove beneficial in contributing to economic growth and in fostering the apparent social harmony of the country as a whole, the issue of Adivasi communities who are forced to leave their lands without adequate compensations is often ignored. A highly acclaimed work, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s anthology The Adivasi Will Not Dance not only brings the concerns of an exploited Adivasi community to the forefront, but through its realistic description of their life also challenges tribal representations in mainstream literature. With this in mind, I will explore the individual stories in the collection as constituting a collective narrative of dispossession suffered by the community, using development as the culprit for their never-ending troubles.

Development as Persecutor

In almost all the stories, the inauguration of a development project spells trouble for the community. Be it the mining company in the Pakur district of Matiajore that dispossessed Mangal Murmu and others of their land, or the rise of the coal mining town, Lakkhipur, that took away the lands of zamindars, forcing women like Jharna to open brothels to support themselves in the absence of a patron; state funded development projects remain the major persecutors of Adivasi communities. The land and mineral resources rightfully theirs were used by private and public companies, thus transforming Adivasis from farmers or stewards of the land to agricultural labourers. Mangal Murmu, in the titular short story “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”, charts how Santhals, in exchange for their lands, get “tatters to wear” and “barely enough food for survival”. Lack of adequate education in free government schools forces them to send their children to “Kiristan” missionary schools that force them to change their name and religion in the name of Christ. The earth they value the most has “become black”, making them ill and reluctant to work.

Ramchandra Guha in his essay “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy” highlights how, through a deliberate process, these stewards of the forest have been turned into subjects under a Forest Department that refuses to address their concerns (Guha 2007, 4). Political parties have further neglected Adivasi pleas by choosing to divert their attention to Dalits and Muslims who are scattered all around the country, and are thus more capable of influencing their success at the ballot box.

Need of Migration

Lack of adequate means of survival often forces Adivasi communities to undertake migration, which at times accelerates the process of cultural erasure. In “November is the Month of Migration”, Shekhar explores the psyche of a young Talamai who, along with her family, is migrating to Namal to plant rice in Bardhaman zamindar farms. Though their travel will open an avenue to earning some extra income, their unemployment throughout their travel will force them to go hungry. Aware of their circumstances, Talamai decides to barter her body in exchange for two bread pakoras and fifty rupees. Sex is presented as callous, used by women to earn their means of subsistence. The jawan who is required to safeguard women’s interests is actually contributing to pay for their exploitation. It is hunger that drives them to not only migrate to alien lands but leave their ailing children at home, highlighted by Subhashini’s story of leaving her suffering child Kunu at home in “Desire, Divination, Death” to earn her daily wages.

While the facts of Adivasi exploitation can be gathered from other sources, it’s the power of Literature that brings their miserable condition to bear with brutal force. Readers are forced to think about how the meaning of development is completely different for the people who are being deprived of their livelihoods. The readers cannot but wonder how money generated out of development projects is rarely transferred to the actual owners of the land - Adivasis - and how by being obsessed with their needs, they have remained oblivious of the ground reality posed by these coal and thermal power plants. Shekhar presents reality as it is, his characters represent the reality of suffering, the wrath of human emotions, and it is the rawness of their being - the reason for their suffering - that makes the reader think and evaluate their understanding of the developing India they are praising.

Another Kind of Development

The anthology encourages another kind of development - development of the mind - to let go of stereotypical perspectives. It aims to unveil the humanity of Adivasis who - like any human - are capable of emotions and feelings, but are made to behave in a particular manner due to state policies and societal beliefs. Throughout the book, Shekhar makes a conscious attempt to humanise his characters in terms of what they are and not what they are supposed to be. The title itself, "The Adivasi Will Not Dance", counters the expectations of elite India (Chakraborty 2017, 4) which associate Adivasis with traditional livelihoods and dance. Use of words like Diku or Rabin-haram in the narrative further de-familiarises the Indian reader, thus making the reader recognize their lack of knowledge of a culture that is supposedly incorporated in the national fervour of a united India.

In his interview with The Telegraph, Shekhar asserts how every story in the collection is “scoured out of real life”. And for Adivasis, the underlined exploitation is the reality of existence. While state funded projects make their life miserable, their assimilation into so called civil society comes at the cost of leaving behind their ways of life. In the story "They Eat Meat”, Pajhi and her family are required to abandon their meat-eating habits if they want to settle in neat and clean Vadodara.

Government construction of coal mines and industries at the cost of Adivasi hardship problematises the notion of development on which these projects are centred, and the literary enterprise pinpoints the difference of meaning in a manner that is both cohesive and impactful. This, in short, is the utility of Literature, the impact of its outline that forces us to think, develop and re-establish our knowledge systems in more holistic ways. Seen in this light, the literary text The Adivasi Will Not Dance, with its truthful depiction tries to encourage both the state and its people to take adequate steps for the welfare of tribal communities. By understanding the meaning of terms like development from the perspective of impacted communities, the literary text in its own way opens an avenue of engagement where people from various groups and communities could come together to fight prevailing mindsets, and in doing so create new inclusive meanings of terms of everyday use.


  1. Chakraborty, Abin. 2017. “Examining subalternity in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance," Postcolonial Text, 12 (1).

  2. Guha, Ramachandra. 2007. “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy,” Economic and Political Weekly, 42 (32): 3305–3312. Accessed:

Cover photo: South Chhattisgarh 2017: Adivasi block a police station. Source: Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS):

Bhavya Rattan has completed her masters in English from Miranda House, University of Delhi. She likes to read and write on variety of issues, from everyday reality to struggles in the lives of marginalised communities. Other areas of her research interests include gender studies, film studies, graphic representation of life narratives and reader response criticism.

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