[Editorial] India’s 1st Tribal President

On 19th December 1946, Adivasi leader Jaipal Munda, speaking at the Constituent Assembly, referred to the new constitution as ‘an opportunity’ for his people who had suffered for 6,000 years. Later, on 24th January 1947, he criticized the Advisory Committee, that was framing schemes for tribal area administration, for not considering the inclusion of a tribal women in it. Almost 75 years later, India is set to have its 1st Adivasi President.

Who is Droupadi Murmu?

  • The 15th President of India, Droupadi Murmu, is was born into a Santhal family in 1958.
  • She hails from the Uparbeda panchayat of Mayurbhanj district, Odisha.
  • She was the 1st woman in the Uparbeda area to attend collegeRamadevi Women’s College (now Ramadevi Women’s University) in Bhubaneswar.
  • She had worked as a teacher at the Sri Aurobindo Integral Education Center in Mayurbhanj.
  • Following this, she worked as a junior assistant in the state government’s irrigation and power department.
  • She was elected to the Odisha State Assembly in 2000 and again in 2009. She has also served as a minister. She has held the following portfolios:
    • Commerce and Transport
    • Fisheries and Animal Husbandry
  • She served as the Governor of Jharkhand between 2015 and 2021. She was the 1st woman Governor of the state.
  • She ensured a non-controversial tenure during her time as a Governor of an Opposition-led state. This earned her the support of the state’s ruling party, JMM, in the recent elections.
  • However, she wasn’t a pushover either. In 2016, when 2 amendment bills were sent to her for approval, she returned the bills, saying that she wouldn’t let injustice happen through her pen. These were bills, from the BJP government, seeking to amend the Chotanagpur Tenancy and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts. Such an amendment would allegedly have enabled easy land transfer for industrial use. These amendments were protested by the tribal communities (Pathalgadi movement of 2016-2018).
  • She has frequently commented on Adivasis’ issues. For instance, at an international conference on financial inclusion, she noted how their conditions remained ‘extremely poor’ in Jharkhand.
  • She has also been pushing for translation of literature in Adivasi language and on Adivasi culture.
  • Her own life has been marked by loss of her 2 children and her husband, even while staying committed to public service.

Who are the Murmus?

  • The Murmus are from the Santhal community– noted for its long and proud history.
  • Before the 1857 Revolt, 2 siblings, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu organized more than 10,000 Santhals and launched a rebel against the British East India Company and the Zamindari system in Jharkhand and West Bengal.
  • The Murmus freed large tracts of these areas before the Martial Law was declared by the Company in 1855. Soon, the siblings and many other Santhals were killed by the colonialists.

Why is her election significant?

  • Droupadi Murmu is not only the 1st Adivasi President, she is also the 2nd woman President.
  • A tribal woman succeeding a Dalit to the country’s highest constitutional post is a testimony to the deep roots of Indian democracy.
  • Adivasis, an Austro-Asiatic ethnic group, are considered as the original indigenous people who inhabited the country. They are mainly settled in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha.
  • Adivasi community has been marginalized– economically, socially and culturally.
  • According to the 2011 Census, Scheduled Tribes constitute more than 8.6% (104 million people) of the Indian population.
  • In addition to her identity as a Santhal, she is also noted for her experience in politics and governance, having donned diverse hats of legislator, minister and governor.

Criticism:

  • Some have raised concerns about her affiliations with right-wing Hindutva groups.
  • There are also criticism of her handling of a controversial bill- Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2017– an anti-conversion legislation, which she passed.
  • Elevation of a leader from a marginalized community doesn’t necessarily benefit the entire community. Critics have pointed to how Birsa Munda has been elevated to a national leader and yet the situation of tribes at the grassroot level remains mostly unchanged.
  • The President is only the de jure head.

Looking ahead:

  • The Indian Constitution vests the executive power of the Union in the President- the highest Constitutional office in India.
  • Given how we have a parliamentary polity, the real power is exercised by the government, while the President functions as the titular head.
  • Yet, the President is not just a rubber stamp for the ruling party’s decisions. For instance, the President can return bills to the Parliament, should she have concerns that need addressing.
  • Given how the President-elect has already exhibited constitutional propriety during her tenure as Governor, there is valid hope that she performs just as well as the country’s President.

Conclusion:

Droupadi Murmu’s election as the President of the world’s largest democracy holds a message to the world democracies. Her election to the country’s highest office is a testimony to how far the country’s democratic mechanism has matured.

Practice Question for Mains

Comment on the significance of election of Droupadi Murmu as the 1st Tribal President of India. (250 words)

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