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Symbolic or Substantiative Elevation of a Santhal Adivasi woman as first Citizen

SHALINA MEHTA

Professor of Socio-cultural Anthropology (retd.)

Department of Anthropology

Panjab University

Chandigarh

“Every Great Dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the patience to reach for the stars to change the World”. arriet

Harriet Tubman

India’s first Adivasi woman takes oath as the 15th President of India
India’s first Adivasi woman takes oath as the 15th President of India
  • My election is proof of the fact that in India, the poor can dream and fulfil those dreams,--- It is the power of India’s democracy that a girl born in a poor tribal home could reach the topmost constitutional position.

  • This is not only my achievement. It is the achievement of all the poor in the country.

  • With their blessings and the support of the mothers and daughters of the country I am standing here in front of you.

  • I belong to the tribal society, and I have got the opportunity to become the President of India from the Ward Councillor. This is the greatness of India, the mother of democracy.

  • Satisfying to me that the people who were devoid of development for years -the poor, Dalits, backward, the tribals- can see me as their reflection. My nomination has blessings of the poor behind it, it's a reflection of the dreams &capabilities of crores of women.

  • Today, I assure all the countrymen, especially the youth of India and the women of India, that while working in this position, their interests will be paramount for me.

Some valuable quotes from President Droupdi Murmu’s first speech after taking Oath as the 15th President of India.


There is palpable excitement in the country as first Adivasi woman is sworn as the first citizen of India on the historic day of 25th July 2022. There are many first attached to her name as the occupant of this most distinguished honour any Indian would aspire for. She is first Adivasi woman to become the 15th President of India. She is also the youngest president that India had since independence. She is also the first president from the State of Odisha. She won with a massive mandate of 64.03% votes against only 35.97% votes that her opponent received. She broke several glass ceilings and won the support of many opposition state legislators and parliamentarians. She was also the first Adivasi woman governor from the state of Odisha to another Adivasi state of Jharkhand and has the distinction of being the longest serving governor (2015-2021).

PERSONAL JOURNEY OF SUCCESS, TRAGEDY AND RESELIENCE

Her journey from Rairangpur in Odisha to Raisina Hill in Delhi is simply historic. In letters @hindustantimes.com, Debabrata Mohanty (22nd July 2022) celebrates it aptly in the title: Why not? How a tribal girl who dared to dream became India’s 15th President. It was Bernard Shaw who said, “You see things and you say, ‘why’?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?” One is not aware if first citizen of India read it and was inspired by it, but she certainly lives it.

She was Born on 20th June 1958 in a small village Uparbeda, Kusumi block, Mayurbhanj District, Odisha and studied in a dilapidated school structure. In her speech this morning, she mentioned going to a primary school was also difficult for children at a time when she was growing up. She learnt to compete early and came first in school. Her dreams were made of Odia translation of Robert Frost’s famous poem Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, internalizing Nehru’s favourite lines, “The Woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep”.

It was this determination that took her to Bhubaneshwar to study after class 7th because the village school was only up to upper primary. Her determination to succeed takes her to Rama Devi college in Bhubaneshwar to pursue higher studies with specialization in sociology and Political Science. In her first speech after taking oath, she reiterated that she was the first girl from her village to go to college.

Her historic journey had just begun! After finishing college, she takes up a job as junior assistant at Odisha secretariate. Same year, she is married to Shyam Charan Murmu, and changed her name from Droupdi Tudu to Droupadi Murmu-a name that would always be etched in golden letters in Indian history.

Her tryst with destiny starts developing its contours from there on. In 1980, she gives up her job to take care of her four children. In 1988, her resilience is tested as her eight-year-old eldest daughter succumbs to illness. Slowly she learns to live with her loss and once her husband is transferred to Rairangpur, she starts teaching in a school there. Soon she becomes popular among students because of her commitment to teaching and for her humility and generosity. Slowly she became Didi to everyone and is fondly addressed till today as ‘Didi’ (an elder sister).

Her political career and race from Rairangpur to Raisina Hills starts here in the year 1997. Ward that she lives in Rairangpur becomes a reserved constituency for a woman from the scheduled tribe. She opts to align with BJP while the political party was neither a major player in the state politics or at the centre. In the 11th state Legislative assembly in Odisha there were only 9 elected members from BJP while congress had 80. Her decision to go with BJP is interesting and politically astute. Some political Pandits argue that politics is in her genes as her father and grandfather were Sarpanch of the Panchayat during their lifetime.

However, it is her humility and immense popularity and commitment to work on the ground that brought her in the forefront of BJP politics in the state. In 2000, she gets elected to Odisha state assembly, while state politics is being redefined. BJP won 38 seats and BJD got 68 and INC was reduced to 26. BJP-BJD formed a coalition government, and she is made Minster for transport, fisheries, and animal husbandry. In 2004, she is elected again for the 2nd term to the assembly and in 2007 wins the ’Nilakantha award’ for being the best MLA for the year 2007.

In 2009, journey of this stoic woman experienced immense political and personal setback. She lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from Mayurbhanj by a huge margin getting only 18.26% of the total votes cast. Same year she is hit by another personal tragedy because of sudden and untimely death of her 25year old elder son. Tragedies and her destiny appear to be intertwined. As her political fortunes took a back seat personal tragedies compounded her life. In 2013 she lost her 2nd son in a car accident and in the same month both her brother and mother passed away. Her endurance was being tested repeatedly as she lost her husband to a sudden cardiac failure in 2014. It is a compelling and tragic narrative, sending shivers down one’s spine.

She became a recluse for a while, decided to withdraw from active politics and took refuge in meditation. She joined the Prajapati BrahmKumari sect in 2015 and immersed herself in pursuit of spirituality. There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength’. She proved it to herself and to the World and immersed her bruised self in doing public good. There was no looking back thereafter. She was appointed Governor of Jharkhand the same year. In 2021, after completing her tenure as Governor, she returned to her humble home in Rairangpur and kept doing what she knew best, public service. In 2022, she is nominated by NDA as their presidential candidate and today after taking oath of her presidential office, she made history again.

WHY HER ELECTION MATTERS

India is home to 804 million Adivasi constituting 8.6% of its total population according to the 2011 Census. Election of Draupadi Murmu, an Adivasi woman belonging to Santhal/Santal community signifies a historic moment for Indian democracy celebrating 75 years of its Independence. But the moot question is- will it significantly impact India’s Adivasi people. Adivasi population of the country has largely remained subjugated, marginalised, and dispossessed.

Her election brought back memories of a middle piece, I wrote on December 19th, 1989, for ‘The Tribune’, published from Chandigarh, articulating voice of Adivasi women, I met in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha that year, it read:

“India is in the hands of a “raja” who lives in a faraway place called ‘Dilli’. The raja’s name is ‘Rajiv’, and he is the son of Maharani Indira”. These were voices of Adivasi women living in some of the most impoverished districts of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. In 1989, even an illusion of having an Adivasi woman as India’s president and may be some day as its Prime Minister was beyond imagination.

One of the biggest challenges for an inclusive and equal society is the gap between formal literacy and denial of immense wisdom and knowledge that local communities possessed. It started under the colonial rule and continues in post- colonial India. Successive planning commissions ignored the local wisdom and made tardy attempts to impose formal education on the Adivasi communities. This is being done without paying due diligence to impart formal literacy in local metaphors. Hon’ble president sailed through this flawed formal system of literacy at a time when rate of formal literacy in her community from the district of Mayurbhanj was dismal 12.22% (as per the 1971 census).

National average for Adivasi literacy in 1961 was mere 8.53% which had numerically gone up to 58.96% in 2011 census. I say numerically deliberately as quality of education provided to our Adivasi children is pathetic to say the least. What worries one the most is increasing literacy gap between men and women among the Scheduled Tribes. Most important task that the new incumbent of Raisina Hill must address is to ensure that this gap is bridged. She expressed her desire to focus on education and mentioned in her speech how she enjoyed teaching in a school and was inspired by the philosophy of Aurobindo. One hopes that in the coming five years, literacy gap between male and female Adivasi children would be bridged and better schooling would be available to them.

New education policy (NEP-2021) after seventy-five years has finally accepted the need to impart formal education in the local languages if not dialects of Adivasi/Tribal communities. Problem is near absence of adequate quality of infrastructure including primary textbooks in their languages. President of India has within her power to ensure adequate investments are made in improving quality of education in Adivasi heartland. She is an inspiration herself and her success is bound to inspire many more to become part of aspirational India.

Other important task that she must proactively address is high rate of infant and maternal mortality among the Adivasi people in India. Her parent state of Odisha has IMR of 90 per thousand live births which is third highest in the country along with the states of Madhya Pradesh (110) and Chhattisgarh (100). IMR in ‘tribal districts’ across the country is much higher in rural areas as compared to urban pockets. Sadly, IMR among Adivasi children is 30% higher than the national average. What makes it an alarming concern is 61% higher mortality rate vis-à-vis national average among the Adivasi children below the age of five. Though India has made significant progress in reducing MMR, but concerns from tribal districts remain proportionately very high. One study suggests MMR even in tertiary care hospitals in tribal areas varied from 600to 1100/100,000 live births.

Climate change and deteriorating eco-systems including condition of our forests is a challenge that our first Adivasi President must address. Anthropologists have argued for decades to draw conservation practises from Adivasi heartland. International treaties may be infectious as needs of local communities vary from region to region. To impose uniform laws and universal declarations for environment protection are not viable on the ground as these may encroach on the fundamental rights of Adivasi people. Our new president has several tasks waiting for attention. Our expectations are rife and hopes unbound!

SKEPTICS QUESTION

In a section of the media and by the parties in the opposition raise blatant questions about her ability to make any substantiative contributions to the future of Adivasi/ tribal and other marginalized sections of the society. Critique by a class of intellectuals is more subtle suggesting her elevation is only symbolic and her presence will not make any significant difference to the plight of the community that she represents.

Most political analyst called her an election ploy to strengthen BJP’s Adivasi vote share in electoral politics. They assume that the process of Adivasi incorporation in the ideological fold of the BJP started with the symbolism of bringing sacrifice of Birsa Munda to the forefront. 15th November birthday of this legendary leader was declared as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas through a cabinet decision in 2021. The day was celebrated with aplomb across the country as part of the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. Extended argument is that her nomination is only an extension of that strategy.

Activists and academics argued that it is good to have her in office, but her presence would be only symbolic. One of the prominent voices raising doubts over her autonomous decision-making abilities is sociologist Nandini Sunder, she wrote:

As Governor of Jharkhand, Murmu’s record of defending Adivasi right is mixed, She returned bills proposed by BJP regime that aimed at changing the land tenure legislation -CNTA (Chotanagpur Tenancy Act) and SPTA (Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act)-to make it easier for outsiders to take away Adivasi land, but thereafter she quickly passed anti-Adivasi changes in the Land Acquisition Act as well as the Freedom of Religion Bill 2017which criminalises conversion.---------The choice of Murmu as presidential candidate must be seen in light of BJP’s outreach to Adivasis in order to strengthen the “Hindu” fold and win elections. The BJP clearly had electoral calculations in mind, such as the approaching elections in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and the Adivasi vote more broadly. (The Mahabharata’s Draupadi Questioned Injustice, India Needs President Droupadi to Do the Same (thewire.in) dated 19th July 2022, accessed on 24th July 2022)

Others presented a counter narrative citing her ability to function independently and rejecting bills that she believed would be anti-Adivasi, she has the right to her opinion about approving and rejecting any bill. It is unfair to infer that she did it under any duress.

Apprehension of some activists and elite academics that She will not be able to object to amendments being made in the forest rights Act 2006, is speculative. Hence, her elevation though important and significant is only symbolic undermines her strengths as a competent head of the State. For a head of the state, even under the power bestowed on the office by the constitution of India gives enough leeway for her to make a difference and become in the true sense a people’s president. It is not always necessary for the head of the state to opt for a confrontationist position when there is enough scope to make a difference by simply being pro-active for the causes that are critical for the elimination of marginalization and poverty.


WHY AM I EXCITED?

Question is why am I excited? I am not a Santhal nor an Adivasi. But, yes, I am a woman and anthropologist who has witnessed for more than thirty years, often with dismay and haplessness sufferings of the Adivasi people because of our flawed development policies and agenda. Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his seminal work The Postmodern Condition (1984) defines this arrogance as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is, somewhat ironically, a product of scientific progress (1984: xxiv).

We muted them because of our arrogance, our believes in our stance being always in favour of these ‘assumed voiceless of our country’ because of our assumed scientism. Today, they have a woman Adivasi leader at the helm of affairs, who knows what it means to suffer and struggle. There is a voice that will keep the interest of ADIVASI before everything else. “Success isn’t just about what you accomplish in your life, it is about what you inspire others to do” and in doing so, she has today inspired millions of Adivasis not only in India but also indigenous communities and the marginalized across the globe.

Adivasi community in India have great expectations from the 15th president of India. They are aspiring for a productive future that gives them dignity and economic security. They want their forest rights to be protected and their local cultural practises honoured and treasured. It is my firm conviction that a woman of her grit, determination, stoicism would always act in support of the Adivasi people and their rights. Contrary to the perception of some intellectuals and activists, her presence is also not going to be symbolic. She would be an asset to the state, women, Adivasi, and other marginalized communities in the country. Road to achieving what people expect from her is rather long and she has as of now only five years to deliver! On behalf of fraternity of anthropologists committed to the Adivasi cause, I wish her good luck and Success.

Success isn’t just about what you accomplish in your life, it is about what you inspire others to do.

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28 Comments


Shalinaji you have written a wonderful blog highlighting the background and the tragedies she faced in life and still reached the highest office in the country. However, we need to remember that now she represents the whole country and needs to sincerely work for the entire nation. No doubt, being from the adivasi background she needs to work and


help the adivasi society for their well-being and uplift especially education and quality life. We only hope that our existing political system permitted her to work independently and not remain a political cover. India needs a strong President. We wish her all the best and compliment you for the most informative blog.


With good wishes,

Brig M K Agarwal

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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Jul 29, 2022

I am rather pleased about Lady Murmu’s elevation to our highest office. The background

may be humble, but she seems, even today, to be fitting the role. She symbolises the effort

of the weaker lot to be able, if determined, to reach any height. Twice MLA, a State Cabinet

Minister, then a Governor and now, wow, the President of India. Of course, the hand of the

Supreme Master does it eventually, but she is a great choice. Well, even if her appointment

symbolises electoral politics, she appears to fit the office better than another earlier, of the

same sex. She has carried herself through the ceremonies with supreme confidence, and

looks to be able to press her way where required.…


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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Jul 29, 2022

Ma'am! I expect something more from her than all previous Presidents (I don't know why).

Please ask all members of UIAF to write about tribals, their aspirations, their problems &

frustrations etc al also their personal experiences (etic as well emic, if possible).

That is one way to realise the importance of our discipline.

Dr. Naresh Vaid

Vaids’s Academy, Delhi

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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Jul 29, 2022

Dear Shalina,


Thanks for your blog on India's first President from Adivasi community. Your article is

brilliant; so well prepared and thought provoking. This was a great introduction of President

Droupdi Murmu and helped me to learn about her life and accomplishments. She had many

many hardships and has managed to accomplish so much. I hope she will do a lot to uplift

and grow the Adivasi community.

Your article brought back memories of that day, back in 1959, when I had a one-on-one

meeting with President Rajendra Prasad at Rastrapati Bavan. That was just before the

departure of the Indian student delegation to Sri Lanka. He was very kind and gracious and

made me feel as if I was…


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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Jul 29, 2022

Dear Shalina ji

What an incredible article

Beautifully researched and well-articulated!

You have penned her life story in a simple fashion yet weaved it in a complex class conflict.

If you permit I will send it to Punjab Kesari for publication.


Mr. Rajiv Nayar

Lawyer, Supreme Court of India

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