Book Title: Droupadi Murmu: From Tribal Hinterlands to Raisina Hill
Author: Kasturi Ray
The elevation of Droupadi Murmu as the 15th President of India was remarkable in more ways than one. In the 75th year of India’s Independence, it raised the hopes of billions of citizens of the country who identified with the struggles and successes that paved her way to the topmost position in the country. Born in the Santali-dominated Uparbeda village near Rairangpur, Odisha, Murmu went on to become a school teacher, an MLA as a BJP candidate and then a minister in the BJD-BJP alliance, Governor of Jharkhand and, ultimately, the President of India. Her rise is a tribute to Indian democracy, which provided her with opportunities aided by her own hard work, personal tragedies only steeling her resolve.
Upon being nominated by the NDA for the President’s post, Murmu expressed her doubt if she would be able to shoulder the responsibility as expected, and Prime Minister Modi assured her that she could. “The Constitution will guide and show you the right path,” he told her.
For the presidential election, the Election Commission decreed that no political party can issue a whip to its members. The election was remarkable for the cross-voting which became evident when the results came out. Cross-voting had taken place in 17 states where 126 MLAs and 17 MPs went against their party lines to vote for Murmu, with the biggest instance reported from Assam where 26 non-BJP lawmakers voted for her. The first woman tribal President had won support cutting across party lines, but also revealing cracks within the Opposition alliances.
As the Governor of Jharkhand, Droupadi Murmu set many precedents, defying the BJP government of Raghubar Das when it tried to bring in amendments to the Santhal Pargana and Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Acts to allow the commercial use of land belonging to the tribals. It led to protests resulting in the rise of the Pathalgadi movement from Khunti. Ultimately, the state government had to retract. She took interest in improving the state of education in Jharkhand, holding Lok Adalats to dispose of the grievances of the teaching and non-teaching staff.
The book says that as President, Droupadi Murmu’s appeal is not limited to just women. She is a warrior for the downtrodden, constantly trying to improve their lives. On November 27, 2022, Murmu addressed a gathering of Cabinet ministers, judges and chief justices. Subtly but sternly, she expressed her dissatisfaction with the judiciary. She let them know what is desired of the judges and lawyers to provide justice quickly, particularly to the poor and vulnerable. Speaking of the people in jails from her experience as a member of the Home standing committee in Odisha, she said that those in jail do not even know about their fundamental rights, the Preamble or even their fundamental duties. She expressed her desire for the legal system to help bail these prisoners out of further years in jail and more trouble. As the book says, the implications of her presidency will unfold only gradually in the years ahead.
The author, a journalist, has done commendable research to come up with facts and details about President Murmu, filling in the narrative with interesting details. The book shows how despite personal grief, when she lost her husband and sons, Murmu went on to dedicate her life to public service. Simple yet stern and firm, she has an unwavering mind. Her knowledge of Odisha’s Jagannath culture and pride in her Adivasi roots, which keeps her attached to jal, jungle, zameen, have helped her in stepping beyond the ceremonial duties and pitching in to ameliorate the lot of the poor.
With a ‘Foreword’ by Kiran Bedi, the book has interesting asides about her personal and political background. Droupadi Murmu is not just a case fit for political scientists but also developmental anthropologists, testifying through her life that the tribal weltanschauung (worldview) is adapting with the traditional Nature-Man-Spirit complex to the changing times, and doing it so well.