Being Droupadi Murmu — the arc of a gritty career and diverse people’s struggles 

The Indian imagination must update itself on the diverse and rich history of the country’s tribal communities, and the ways in which they have been betrayed  

June 24, 2022 11:37 am | Updated 05:20 pm IST

Sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik creates a sculpture in honour of the NDA’s Presidential candidate Droupadi Murmu, at a beach in Puri.

Sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik creates a sculpture in honour of the NDA’s Presidential candidate Droupadi Murmu, at a beach in Puri. | Photo Credit: PTI

The announcement of former Jharkhand Governor Droupadi Murmu’s name as the Presidential candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is historic not just because of her own political and life journey, but also for what she represents.

She belongs to the Scheduled Tribes, a category of people who have been subjected to an existential crisis regarding their place in Indian polity and society.

Ms. Murmu hails from the Santhal community, one of the most politically engaged and dominant of tribal communities. The Santhals are among the major tribes, including the Gond, Munda, Ho, Oraon, Bhil, Mina, Khond and the Nagas, that also dominate the tribal landscape in the country. From the time of the Santhal rebellion or Hul of 1857-8, led by the brothers Sido and Kanhu Murmu, against colonial rule, the Santhals have been at the forefront of providing leadership to the Jharkhand movement. Notable among Santhals in political life is Shibu Soren, father of the current Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren. The fact that Ms. Murmu is from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in the opposition in the State against Mr. Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, reflects the breadth of tribal engagement with political parties.

Given the numbers, Ms. Murmu’s election as President is but a formality, which would make her the first tribal occupant of Rashtrapati Bhawan, the beating heart of the Indian Republic. For those crying that the gesture amounts to tokenism, there needs to be a reminder of her own long experience in politics and constitutional office.

Her journey to this position has been protracted and symbolic of the struggle of the tribal people to find space in the political imaginary of the nation. What significance her election as President would have in the future for people hailing from India’s many and diverse tribal communities and how responsive and inclusive she would be in projecting their concerns, especially regarding those who are vulnerable and more marginalised from public life, is something that only time can tell, and should not be prejudged.

A special moment 

Ms. Murmu’s journey to Raisina Hill, interestingly, comes on the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.   

For the longest time, there had been confusion over who India’s tribals were, especially given the territorial expanse of the subcontinent and the diversity of its peoples. Could they be located within the caste system (jati)? Were they groups who had been isolated geographically? Were they societies (jana) with distinct social, economic and political organisations? 

Irrespective of this questioning, especially in colonial times, once India was independent and every citizen was deemed equal, safeguards and affirmative action were included in the Constitution. For purposes of enlisting them in the Fifth Schedule, a list publicly notified by the President of India after consultation with Governors, Scheduled Tribes have been identified on five basic criteria: primitive traits, backwardness, geographical isolation, distinctive culture, shyness of contact with other communities — in 2017 the government announced that it would delete the word “primitive”. 

Nonetheless, this inert understanding has somehow persisted in the public imagination and continues to inform administrative and policy circles. It tends to not just ignore the richness of their contribution to national life, but also creates a patronising aura over the tremendous diversity among tribes, who make up about 8% of the Indian population and are unevenly distributed, with a substantial presence in central India.

A rich political legacy

What modern India never engages with is the fact that Adivasi communities have a complex and rich political history of having participated in some of the fiercest battles against the British. Sociologist K.S. Singh’s seminal work Tribal Movements In India: Volume II (1982) captures the fiery spirit of a people who resiliently fought back against British policies that alienated their rights over land and forests. For example, consider the Bhumkal rebellion of 1910 in Bastar. When the British administration alienated their rights over the forests, the local tribal population rose in revolt. The Tana Bhagat movement between 1914 and 1920 against the British and their collaborative class of zamindars in the Chhotanagpur area of Central India was significant as it resorted to Gandhian methods of Ahimsa and Satyagraha.  

Sadly however, forest satyagrahas, land-based movements and social reform movements inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership in the hope of finding wider support on land and forest alienation issues did not get enough interest from the nationalists.

The existential crisis among them, which they have engaged with more intensely and politically than perhaps any other set of communities in India, only intensified as this phase also saw the rise of an educated tribal political class that soon realised the need to push its political aspirations in the changing landscape of national politics.

History of betrayal

From the Gonds and the Bhils demanding statehood in the 1940s to the proposal submitted to the States Reorganisation Commission in the 1950s for a separate Jharkhand State — these are examples of the anxiety of tribal communities over their future, in colonial times and in newly independent India. Common to them is the experience of betrayal, of being refused their rightful and distinct space in the nation’s political economy.

Despite all of this, the popular imagination in India either romanticises or patronises tribal communities. Lost is the complicated history of communities before they were forced to give up their traditional ways of life to become a large section of the labouring class who now work in plantations, mines and construction sites. Their encounter with and levels of integration into mainstream society varies. However, a common thread runs through their narratives — their sense of betrayal in being made invisible in the march of civilisation.

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