How good a President will Droupadi Murmu turn out to be?
The test of a President is how well the incumbent ‘preserves, protects and defends’ the Constitution; tribal communities, diverse and spread across the country, however have few expectations from her
When K.R. Narayanan stepped into the Rashtrapati Bhavan as the 10th President of India, there was not much talk of his Scheduled Caste background. This was presumably because he already had a distinguished career as a diplomat in the Foreign Service and because he had already served as Vice President for five long years. His then press secretary S.N. Sahu recalls that in a media interaction after his election he was indeed asked how it felt to be the ‘first’ Dalit President of India. The short reply from President Narayanan was, “A President is a President.”
The president of India takes an oath that is different from the one used to swear in the prime minister and the chief ministers. The president takes the oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of India. And K.R. Narayanan is better known today for returning the files recommending dismissal of the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh and the Rabri Devi government in Bihar to the then prime ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee respectively, than for being a Dalit.
President Narayanan had described himself as a ‘Working President’. As President, he used messages and speeches to convey public sentiment and constitutional morality. On one occasion, Sahu recalls, President Narayanan in his address to the Indian History Congress quoted from a Bombay High Court judgment from the 1960s to say that history could not be rewritten at the whims of governments. That put a brake to attempts which were being made at the time to rewrite history. But today the BJP government is committed to rewriting history, as Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated recently. What can President Droupadi Murmu do is the question.
Possibly not much if she is committed to the ideas propagated by the RSS and the BJP, as various media reports suggest. But there is hope in some quarters because as Governor of Jharkhand she had resisted attempts by the BJP government of Raghubar Das to amend and dilute the Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Acts. The two laws had given protection to tribal owners of land and tribals in Jharkhand do remain grateful to Governor Murmu for ensuring the status quo.
On another occasion, the state government had tried to change the composition of the Tribal Advisory Council under the Fifth Schedule and make the chief minister, not governor, its chairperson. Governor Murmu once again had put her foot down and foiled the attempt. If these precedents are any indication, she can be trusted to apply her own mind, consult a wide spectrum of experts and public opinion before speaking her mind and taking decisions.
While elated at her elevation to the highest office, a large section of tribals in Jharkhand and Odisha admit that they do not have high hopes. “We have no great illusion about her power or huge expectations from her” is the general feeling.
“We know the Constitution has not given the President power to interfere, influence or change decisions of the executive, legislature and the judiciary. But we are still happy because the state which has largely looked on us as ‘noble savages’, now at least recognises our separate identity as a culturally different community. The recognition that we ‘savages’ do have the ability to produce a woman like Draupadi, means a lot to us,” explained a scholar who did not want to be named.
The number of tribals who are increasingly pessimistic about their capacity to retain their distinct identity and culture is hardly small. A few are convinced that tribal societies are doomed to extinction. It would be tragic but “at least people will remember that we did provide a President to this country.” They are proud that one of their own has graduated to be the first citizen in the largest democracy of the world, one step at a time, though hailing from a poor Santhal family in a remote village of Odisha.So what, if after all this comes the deluge!
Adivasis in India are not a homogenous community. There are over 600 tribes spread across the country, from the North-East to Gujarat, from Kashmir to the deep South in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Their language, culture, livelihood and challenges are different, although some factors are common—like displacement from their ancestral land, deprivation of natural resources, cultural alienation and shrinking agency. Dalits in comparison are more close-knit and are deemed to be within the broad Hindu fold.
Tribals in eastern and central India—in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh—have been reduced to the status of economic and ecological refugees since Independence. The demands for raw materials, coal and iron-ore and a multitude of other minerals had to be met by displacing tribals and acquiring their land. The situation has progressively worsened as more and more land have been acquired for mining, power projects, infrastructure and development.
That is the reason why tribals in these states have been restive, some joining the Maoists to take up arms against injustice. As a community they have paid a terrible price for taking on the state. Thousands of them continue to languish in prisons under draconian laws for giving shelter to alleged Maoists or sharing food with them. The authorities have seldom had the patience to appreciate that the Maoists hailed from the same villages, often grew up and played with those who are now in jail. When their paths crossed, not greeting each other or not offering hospitality was not an option.
The militant fringe among the tribals, not surprisingly, look at Droupadi Murmu’s elevation with disdain. She would have no choice but to serve the interests of the political and business elite, they are convinced. She is ‘Modi ka Murmu’, a pawn in the hands of the government and a representative of the RSS in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. What can possibly be expected from her, they ask.
They particularly disapproved of her sweeping the floor of a temple before her election or being blessed and anointed by Hindu priests with Hindu rituals.
“It’s an eyewash. Some tribals are now dancing and singing while sipping rice beer from cupsmade of leaves. But soon enough they will find thedance floor, the Akhra, slipping from under their feet and their rice fields alienated,” quipped a radical young woman.
In a semi-serious vein, some of the tribals point to Santhals naming their daughters after Sita, Kunti and Draupadi from the epics. They are all tragic characters, they point out.
Despite misgivings, tribals are keeping their fingers crossed. Adivasi women are known to be strong, with high self-esteem and a high sense of independence. President Murmu might after all turn out to be a ‘copybook president’.
(The author is an activist and author and a former faculty at the Xavier Institute of Social Service (XISS), Ranchi)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)