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Tribals – Citizens of a lesser god #Bookreview

Nitin Sethi |  

Tribesmen from Harrapath in Chhattisgarh

Author: Malsawmi Jacob
Publisher: Morph Books

In Zorami, author Malsawmi Jacob writes about a period of Mizo history that could well be replicated across the tribal belts of mainland India today. Lurching by chance from Zorami to Laal Lakeer (Red Line), a novel in Hindi, I traced blood-soaked common threads that connect times and geographies of tribal existence in India. In Laal Lakeer, the author Hridayesh Joshi sketches the politics and the nature of state in Chhattisgarh today.

Pages: 262
Price: Rs 399

Author: Hridayesh Joshi
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 319
Price: Rs 350

Author: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 189
Price: Rs 399
Both novels counterpoise the aspirations of a couple against the violence and despair that a community suffers when armed insurgencies rise and when states decide to quell these with equal if not greater brutality. It is the kind of brutality that a nation-state can perpetuate only when there is social sanction to treat a community as the “other” and the political sanction to treat the “other” as an enemy of the state. In this case, about 8 per cent of India’s population, tribal men and women, are the “others”.

The two writers locate their protagonists in forests on fire with physical violence. A third writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, in his book of short-stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, looks at how violence against India’s “others” manifests itself beyond the threat of physical decimation. His “others” are the tribes and other poor from Jharkhand. He maps the psychological, economic and social violence that systematically permeates and gnaws into the everyday life of the “others” in the mineral belt where they are systematically treated by society as citizens without dignity and with lesser rights.

All three books are works of fiction. Yet, all three are true portraits of realities in Indian tribal and mineral belts that journalism has largely found itself incapable of recording. Joshi is a journalist with NDTV and he admits this failure of Indian journalism candidly. He should know: he is one of the few persistent and dogged chroniclers from Delhi of Chhattisgarh’s burning forests. Joshi, with his unreported experiences still fresh, explodes his narrative with vivid details, of terror and love in times of terror.

On the other hand, Jacob, a Mizo writer of fiction and non-fiction, weaves her novel with a deep grief that comes from remembering how state terror (reacting to an armed uprising) tore through society, leaving it perpetually in the process of healing and recovery.

Today, people remember Mizoram as a state where India quelled an armed rebellion “successfully”, turning the society in to a “peaceful” tribal haven. It forgets too often that a majority of Mizo people were uprooted from their lands, forcefully dislocated and brutalised in the process. India doesn’t remind its children that the country first replicated US’s strategic hamleting of Vietnam in the Mizo hills. India doesn’t tell its citizens that similar ruthless torture of communities by the state found political legitimacy in 21st century India in Chhattisgarh, of which Joshi writes.

Joshi and Jacob use a pair of lovers as characters in the foreground, creating a depth of field to view the panoramic scenes of regional violence and misery. Shekhar has a different craft. There is no wide panorama in his narrative and there is no attempt to foreground emotion against the violence. The emotion, in many instances, is ripped away by the characters’ circumstances. So is hope. The bleakness of their existence is painted in a despairing shade deeper than that of coagulating blood around a wound.

Read the story of the 20-year-old Talamai, just another destitute Santhal woman in the mass seasonal migration that tribal belts witness. She “agrees” to rape by a policeman for two pieces of cold bread pakora and Rs 50. Shekhar doesn’t dwell on the rape. He pulverises instead with the image of a people who have been broken to accept violence as episodic blips in their everyday lives.

The three books are also a timely read. Delhi and Hyderabad recently witnessed the attempt to label difference and dissent as anti-national and the consequential attempt to seek social and political sanction for paring down the rights of these freshly minted “others”. That social sanction, it was hoped, would legitimise the unleashing of hoodlums and thugs on Delhi’s streets as the state looked the other way. All in the name of the nation.

These books are good reminders: what transpired in Delhi, abominable as it was, pales in front of what “mainstream” India has systematically perpetuated for decades against the “others” in tribal and mineral-rich India in the name of greater national good and the brutality it has often sanctioned in the name of national security. The blame spreads well across political party lines from the right to left.

At such times when furore has erupted among some about the business of anti-nationalism in Delhi, the three authors bring the history of “others” beyond Delhi to us in the garb of fiction. If you find the quality of one author’s writing weaker compared to the others, as I did, it doesn’t matter; the stories they have to tell are too powerful to quibble about anything else.

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