Presidential Elections — An Adivasi in High Office

The selection of Draupadi Murmu as the NDA’s presidential candidate came as a surprise to Scheduled Tribes (STs), who are among the most marginalized groups in the country. What makes the choice of NES even more remarkable is that they are a tribe belonging to the Austro-Asiatic ethnic group also known as Adivasis, who mainly reside in the central and eastern states from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. During the colonial period, large numbers of Adivasis were taken as indentured laborers to Assam and today their descendants belong to a distinct group called the ‘Tea Tribes’, thus distinguishing them from the tribes of the North East. The Adivasis are also distinct from the tribes of the Andaman Islands which are considered the most “primitive” of India.

The Adivasis of India have been marginalized socially, economically and culturally. Therefore, my first impulse on hearing Murmu’s name as a presidential candidate was to jubilantly exclaim, “Santhal Hul will henceforth be part of our history books and Sido-Kanhu will finally get the place that comes back to him.” However, as footage of her sweeping the courtyard of a Hindu temple in Odisha hit the media, my response became more muted.

As a female Santhal from a Christian missionary background in Jharkhand, my perception of Murmu’s personality is defined not only by her ethnicity as an Adivasi Santhal, but also by her political affiliation with right-wing Hindu groups known for their attacks on religious minorities. At the start of his tenure as Governor of Jharkhand (2015-2021), in the 2016-2018 Pathalgadi movement in Chotanagpur, many tribal villages had resisted attempts by the Raghubar Das-led BJP government to change traditional tribal land laws. Many tribals were arrested and some also died in “encounters with the police”. Murmu had remained silent during this period, although she later bowed to public pressure and refused to sign the Jharkhand Land Acquisition Act 2017, which sought to amend the CNT and SPT laws.

On the other hand, another controversial bill – the Anti-Conversion Bill, also known as Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act 2017 – was passed by her without hesitation. This law criminalized religious conversion to Christianity and, by extension, also criminalized Christian-run social and educational institutions in Jharkhand. Both of these laws were aimed at tribals, but while the land laws were ultimately not changed, many Christian schools offering quality education to tribal students were vandalized.

Recently a tribal friend of mine spoke warmly of Murmu’s genuine concern for higher education in Jharkhand. Yet how can this be ensured for the tribals without providing them with quality education at the primary and secondary levels? Many ST seats go unfilled in vocational colleges because applicants are not deemed suitable.

The elevation of a leader of a marginalized community or group does not necessarily mean that the entire community or group will benefit. For example, as I have written elsewhere, where I examine the elevation of Birsa Munda to the rank of national chief and the impact this had on the situation of the tribals: “…despite the many honors granted to Birsa Munda in high places, there has not been much change in the situation of the tribal people at the local level. The basic motivations behind the tribal rebellions, i.e. Jal, Jangal aur Zameen (water, forest and land) remain the same. Therefore, the struggle of the tribal peoples of India is likely to continue until a drastic change is made in government policy towards them. (‘The Johar Journal’, Vol. II, January-June 2021).

Finally, the Constitution of India makes the president the appointed head of state while vesting all real powers in the prime minister and cabinet, which are the elected representatives of the people. The awareness of being an appointed leader who owed his high office to the largesse of the prime minister had led another president in the past to say publicly that he would sweep the floor if the prime minister asked him to.

The only thing I dare hope is that the turbulent history of the tribal peoples of India will enter public discourse through it. Because, although she lacks agency during her tenure, she can still be a catalyst for change simply by serving as president.

On behalf of all my tribal friends, I send him my best wishes to accede to this high office. Johar!

The writer, santhal poet, scholar and translator is an associate professor in the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She publishes an online journal on tribal issues, with a focus on tribal literatures in translation, titled The Johar Journal

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