On July 1, Pahadpur, a nondescript village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, looked decked out for a festival.
Jagannath Murmu, 40, dressed in the traditional lumang phuta katach (loincloth), was scurrying towards Zaher, the sacred grove of Pahadpur’s Santal tribespeople. He joined fellow villagers at Zaher, surrounded by thick sal forest, and bowed before their deity Marangburu.
Hundreds of men and women in their traditional costumes could be seen entering the village playground and interlocking their arms for a dance sequence. Amid the beating of drums, the dancers moved in circular and semicircular formations and kept dancing till they were completely exhausted.
Except, no Santal festival was scheduled that day. Pahadpur was instead celebrating the nomination of its famous daughter-in-law — Droupadi Murmu — as NDA’s candidate for the Presidential election.
“This appears to be a new festival that has made its way into our calendar. We are witnessing history. People here can’t stop celebrating,” says Braja Mohan Murmu, nephew of NDA Presidential nominee.
“It is time for all political parties to celebrate the rise of a tribal to the top constitutional position,” says khadi-clad octogenarian Ganga Tana Bhagat, who belongs to the Tana Bhagat tribal sect, which participated in the freedom struggle and follows Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of ahimsa.
A significant aspect of Ms. Murmu’s claim to India’s highest Constitutional chair is its timing.
This is the year which marks the country’s 75th Independence Day and 101 years since the first tribal leaders entered the legislative system of pre-Independent India.
“Dulu Manki of Chaibasa [in Jharkhand] was the first Adivasi in the country from the mainland to enter a Legislative Council by winning from Singhbhum general constituency in the Bihar-Orissa Legislative Governor’s Council formed in 1921,” says Aswini Pankaj, Ranchi-based researcher and a historian of India’s tribes. Chaibasa is just 60 km from Ms. Murmu’s village.
Another tribal leader — Nichols Roy, from the Khasi Adivasi community of Shillong, Meghalaya — was also elected to the Legislative Council along with Manki in the same year, Mr. Pankaj adds.
Following Manki’s entry into the Legislative Council, many tribals were elected to various Legislative Councils. Theble Oraon became the first tribal person to become a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1946 on a Congress ticket.
Ms. Murmu’s claim to the President’s chair is being seen as an important event in the sociopolitical history of India’s tribals.
“Tribal representatives have raised issues related to tribal life, water and forestland at various fora. They have played an effective role in making and implementing tribal policies, plans and programmes,” says Mr. Pankaj.
Many tribal activists remember the contribution made by Jharkhand’s Jaipal Singh Munda, who played an important role in getting the Fifth and the Sixth Schedules, to protect tribal interests, included in the Constitution, the historian adds.
The weight of history
Ms. Murmu belongs to the forest-dependent Santal tribe, which is spread over the States of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. It is the third-largest Scheduled Tribe (ST) in India after the Bhils and the Gonds.
More importantly, it is known to have played a significant role in India’s fight against its British oppressors.
In 1855, two brothers Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu mobilised some 60,000 Santals to stage an armed rebellion against the British, whose policies had forced their tribespeople into bonded labour. Though their rebellion was put down by the brutal gun-wielding British soldiers, the fight put up by the two brothers is remembered to this day and commemorated by the government.
Nearly 165 years later, many Santal tribals have gone on to become bureaucrats, writers, bankers and businessmen. But Ms. Murmu’s probable election as the President is a specially significant moment, not just for the Santals, but for all tribals who feel they have been pushed to the wall.
“Over the past several decades, tribals have been marginalised. Though they constitute just 8.6% of the total population, as per the 2011 Census, the areas they live in are rich in natural resources. But as the wheels of India’s industries roll on, the tribals get exploited without getting a share of these mineral resources,” says Y. Giri Rao, a tribal rights activist.
“In the name of development, the tribals have become the biggest victims of displacement, several researchers have shown. The tribals have been pushed to the margins and never managed to find a space in the centre stage of Indian politics,” says Mr. Rao.
Many feel that Ms. Murmu’s elevation as India’s 15th President could change all of this.
Not a ‘rubber stamp’
As a former Governor of Jharkhand, Ms. Murmu has played a significant role in preventing the dilution of tribal land laws. “If anyone thinks she could be used as a ‘rubber stamp’, they are deeply mistaken,” says Hari Oraon, an assistant professor at Ranchi University.
“She has enough experience in politics to judge right from wrong. Even when the Raghubar Das-led BJP government was in power in Jharkhand, as the Governor she refused to give her assent to amendments to the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. She returned the Bills seeking clarifications on how those amendments would benefit the tribals,” he adds.
According to Ritambhara Hebbar, Professor, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, “Tribal communities have always been articulate in raising their issues and representing them in various political fora. Ms. Murmu’s candidature is a culmination of this struggle to find political legitimacy in mainstream politics.”
Many see Ms. Murmu’s nomination as a triumph of the political aspirations that evolved in the tribal heartlands of Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the north-eastern States.
“Her rise to this position is a reflection of her political acuity. The former Jharkhand Governor has worked her way through the ranks. When she assumes India’s highest office, it will also, hopefully, bring awareness among the general public about the Scheduled Tribes and their struggle for dignity and respect,” Prof. Hebbar adds.
Ever since June 21, when BJP chief J.P. Nadda announced Ms. Murmu as NDA’s Presidential candidate, many tribal aspirations have resurfaced. Depending on where one travels, everyone articulates their own expectation from Ms. Murmu.
Budhuram Paharia of Bhainsadani, a remote village in Odisha’s Nuapada district, feels if Ms. Murmu becomes the President, the Paharia community’s struggle to be identified as an ST could finally be over.
Manoranjan Murmu, a teacher, has been pushing for recognition of ‘Sarna’ as a separate religion. Tribals, especially in Odisha and Jharkhand, have been demanding a separate code for Sarna in the religion column of the Census. Sarna believers expect Ms. Murmu to put her weight behind the decades-old demand.
Residents, especially around Rairangpur, Ms. Murmu’s home town, are hopeful that a new era of development will usher in their locality.
“Who in the administration can say no to the President? She can intervene in the implementation of all development programmes, especially for tribals. She is capable of getting things done,” says Muna Pratihari, who has been associated with Ms. Murmu for years, looking after a residential school founded by her at Pahadpur.
Soon after Ms. Murmu was nominated as NDA’s Presidential candidate, the house in which her aunt and sister-in-law live got a power connection. “For years, we had been making the rounds of government offices to get an electricity connection. Then her nomination did the trick. Overnight, we found the house lit up,” says Mirza Singh Tudu, Ms. Murmu’s nephew, who lives in Uparbeda village in Mayurbhanj district.
However, many researchers and activists are of the view that the political framework in which she has been chosen would not let Ms. Murmu work freely, were she to win the election. They feel the role of the President is well defined and she cannot go beyond a point to meet the expectations of her fellow tribespeople.
“I don’t foresee the condition of tribes across India improving dramatically with Ms. Murmu assuming the highest constitutional position. There are many layers in the administration. The President of India does not directly participate in the administration,” says Niladri Mishra, a researcher on tribes.
“How many people’s movements have we seen in areas where the tribals have been conferred with Padma Shri or Padma Bhushan,” asks Mr. Mishra.
Some also find the idea of her identity being underscored repeatedly as a sure sign of India’s democracy not having matured enough.
“Why should we expect only a tribal person to serve the interests of the tribes? Why must we expect a woman President to raise her voice for other women? If interests are served only through such identity politics, it shows that our democracy has not matured,” says Mr. Pankaj.
Pitted against Ms. Murmu is former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha, who was declared the Opposition’s Presidential candidate on June 20. Mr. Sinha has been touring the country ever since, seeking the support of various parties for his bid.
However, the result of the Presidential election, due on July 18, seems to be a foregone conclusion, with Ms. Murmu enjoying the support of more than 50% of the electoral college, including many non-NDA parties such as YSRCP, BSP, SAD, Shiv Sena and JMM, declaring their support for Ms. Murmu.
The biggest gainer from Ms. Murmu’s success will be the BJP, which seeks to strengthen its base among the tribal communities, says Rabi Dash, a Bhubaneswar-based political commentator.
Several other parties that have pledged their support to the NDA candidate are also doing so with an eye on tribal votes.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who was in Italy when Ms. Murmu’s candidature was announced, immediately responded to the development through a tweet: “Congratulations Smt #DraupadiMurmu on being announced as candidate of NDA for the country’s highest office. I was delighted when Hon’ble PM @narendramodi ji discussed this with me. It is indeed a proud moment for people of #Odisha.”
Through the tweet, Mr. Patnaik sent a subtle message that he was taken into confidence before the NDA finalised Ms. Murmu’s name.
Mr. Patnaik also appealed to all the members of the Odisha Legislative Assembly, cutting across party lines, to extend their support to elect “the daughter of Odisha” — to India’s highest office. In the run-up to the Presidential election, Mr. Patnaik, though his party is not a part of the NDA, took the initiative of calling up the leadership of the Odisha Congress to seek support for Ms. Murmu.
Odisha has a unique position on the tribal map of India for having the most diverse groups of tribal communities.
The State is home to 62 different tribes, including 13 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. The tribal population accounts for 22.85% of the State’s total population and 9.17% of the country’s tribal population.
One party that found itself in a tight spot on this issue was the JMM, an important constituent of the Opposition.
On Thursday the first family of the JMM, which belongs to the same tribe as Ms. Murmu, formally announced its support for Ms. Murmu.
“For the first time since Independence, a tribal woman will have the good fortune of becoming India’s President,” party supremo Shibu Soren said in a statement, directing his MLAs and MPs to vote for Ms. Murmu on July 18. The counting is scheduled two days later.
Tribal communities constitute 26.21% of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2011 Census, the Santal tribe has a population of 28,24,886 — the highest among all tribes in the State. It is followed by the Oraon tribe, which has a population of 17,44,799. Jharkhand is among the few Indian States where tribal people’s representatives have a firm say in policymaking and programme implementation.
The major challenge before the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) Presidential nominee will be the issue of tribal land rights. If she assumes the chair of the next President of India, she would have to ensure that the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution are followed in letter and spirit.
Activists allege that the Fifth and Sixth Schedules are currently in a state of suspension, with several State governments diluting their provisions.
Achyut Das, a prominent social activist, who has been working in tribal areas for the past four decades, says, “As a member of the community, Ms. Murmu must rise above party lines to protect tribal identity and culture. The President has the power to stay in touch with administration in Scheduled Areas through Governors.”
“There is an urgent need to carry out course correction in, for instance, the field of education in tribal areas. She has to seek wider consultation on this,” points out Mr. Das.
Irrespective of a raging debate over the changes Ms. Murmu can or cannot introduce if she becomes the next President, what is indisputable is that her candidature has already had an impact on the ground.
“As Ms. Murmu is set to become the next President, people are already talking about her journey. This will inspire a new generation of tribals across India,” says Suresh Chandra Murmu, an assistant professor of Anthropology at Utkal University.
He feels that the issue of women empowerment within the tribal community is likely to see a marked change.
“Though many women have been elected to three-tier Panchayati Raj institutions through the reservation ladder, traditional council of tribal societies lacks participation of women. As a member of the tribal community, I feel more women would now come forward to claim their rightful position in traditional councils, which take decisions about their own society,” he says.
Some feel that Ms. Murmu’s ascent to the top will also help in fighting prejudices about the tribal community.
“People living in urban areas have various misconceptions about tribals. They think tribal people lead primitive lifestyles and live in jungles with little knowledge of how civilisation has progressed. While tribals have excelled in their respective fields, they have also maintained their distinct culture and traditions. The election of Ms. Murmu will perhaps rid people of their prejudices about the tribals,” says Budhan Murmu, a tribal MLA of Saraskana in the Mayurbhanj district.
Ms. Murmu’s likely elevation to the office of President feels like a stroke of serendipity. There is a sense on the ground that cultural barriers around women are beginning to crumble and a more aware crop of young leaders is emerging from the grassroots.
Champabati Murmu, a young mother in Pahadpur village, reflects upon this sentiment. She says she would never neglect her daughter’s education.
Emerging tribal leaders are asking questions about resources in their areas and their rights over them. It may not be easy for political parties to deal with the paradigm shift. The election of Ms. Murmu as the next President could just be a watershed moment for India’s tribals.