When Mrs. Droupadi Murmu was a child, one day her father brought her from Baidaposi village of the Mayurbhanj district in the state of Odisha in India, where she was born, to a nearby town of Rairangpur. A state minister was on the podium at an event when a young Mrs. Murmu ran up to the stage, waving her school certificate and announced to the minister that she wanted to study in the state capital, Bhubaneswar. Impressed by her initiative, the minister asked his staff to help her secure a place in a government school in the capital.
Today in India, Mrs. Droupadi Murmu has been administered the Oath of Office as the 15th President of the Republic of India. She is the first President born in a free India, and the second woman. President Murmu is also the youngest ever. More importantly, Mrs. Murmu, a Santhal, is the first person of tribal origin to be elevated to the Highest Office in the land.
Mrs. Murmu sported an aspirational tribal identity all her life. Both her father and grandfather were heads of village council and her husband was a bank officer. After graduation, she joined various state government departments before she took up teaching languages, math and geography at a local school. She joined politics late in life as a councilor of the local village Panchayat in 1997. Upon election to the state legislative assembly in 2000, she served two terms as Minister of State with Independent Charge. She contested for a seat in the Parliament in 2009 but lost. Between 2009 and 2015 she suffered a series of personal setbacks – death of her two sons, passing away of her husband, mother and brother. Undaunted, she chose to stay involved in public service and served as Governor of the State of Jharkhand from May, 2015 to July, 2021. In July 2022 she received 64% of the votes to be elected President.
President is largely a ceremonial post in India. She is nominally the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, but all executive powers are with the Prime Minister. Since it is all about symbolism, the fact that she hails from the Santhal population makes her more than a role model for her community, she is a symbol of new India that rises past caste and identity politics or dynastic patronages, among others.
The word Santhal is said to be an amalgamation of two words – Santha, meaning calm, and ala, meaning man. In the past Santhals favored a nomadic lifestyle, but now live mostly in three eastern states of India – Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha; Mrs. Murmu’s home district of Mayurbhanj has the highest concentration. Mr. Hemant Soren, current Chief Minister of Jharkhand, is a Santhal, and so is Mr. G C Murmu, current Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Literacy rates for Santhals is known to be very high as most are looking to shake out an agriculturist existence tinged with a nomadic heritage. Santhal population of under seven million is still less than half a percentage of India’s total, which further vindicates how far they have come.
I was reminded of “Dopdi Mejhen” – protagonist of a Bengali short story “Draupadi” by Mahasweta Devi. It is set in the districts of Birbhum, Bankura, Murshidabad, and Burdwan in West Bengal, and the forests of “Jharkhani”, presumably not too far from Mayurbhanj. Dopdi (“Draupadi”), a Santhal, is a peasant radical who is hunted by the State and subjected to gangrape to make her name names. In a fit of defiance, Dopdi approaches her tormentor all naked, bearing marks of the torture and humiliation she’s just gone through. Not it is his turn to be afraid.
In Mahasweta Devi’s rendering, Dopdi is assumed to be defenseless except as endowed by the barrel of a gun aimed at “grain brokers, landlords, moneylenders, law officers, and bureaucrats”. She teams up with, and is encouraged by, “gentlemen” – an obvious reference to highly educated upper-class men (mostly men), primarily from Kolkata, who found their sense of romanticized adventure in an armed uprising of the tribal population. Exhortations of one of them, Arijit, is the last thing Dopdi remembers as she is apprehended.
Shades of a “gentleman savior” syndrome is hard to miss – and that may have been just what the author intended for. Mahasweta Devi represents a dominant view amongst literary and political intelligentsia, much of that persists even to this day. That levers of a functioning economy and society must all connive to deprive tribals of their dignity as a matter of course. That brutal inhumanity of one side is the only injustice we need be concerned with; reality, far more nuanced as always, be damned.
Mrs. Murmu as the President of the Republic of India upends these narratives. “A compassionate woman, she’s good at heart, with no arrogance, no airs. She doesn’t show off, mixes freely with people and is humble and down-to-earth. As a politician, she knew how to take people along.” – that is how a fellow lawmaker described her. “Daughter of the soil” she may be, but she was also a woman of conviction when she refused to sign into law a bill her own party was championing through the state legislature in 2017. She also received brickbats for not standing up against “Freedom of Religion” bill that is alleged to deny individual agency in the matter.
In all, President Murmu has risen far beyond ordinary expectations and overcame avalanche of personal setbacks. Nothing in her history suggests she was explicitly victimized, or favored, because of her heritage beyond what’s set in law. True she must have had some luck, but it is her will and her gumption to ride with anything that comes as part of the package that set her up on the path to the ultimate prize. In that, she is no different from anybody else who has dreamed of a higher office or professional success. She did not need to be.
In today’s India, anything is possible. That exactly is the intended symbolism. Mother India could not be more proud.
[Photo courtesy: ANI]