On July 21, India got its first-ever woman Adivasi president in Droupadi Murmu. Murmu, who served as the governor of Jharkhand from 2015-’21, was fielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party as the presidential candidate. She was elected with an overwhelming majority.
In 1997, the BJP had supported the candidature of KR Narayanan, who was elected as India’s first president from a Scheduled Caste background. Murmu’s victory is not just that of one party. Its implications can be drawn deep down to the very philosophy of what India as an independent nation has been striving to achieve.
Whether Murmu’s victory can bring the goals of that philosophy to fruition will need to be seen. But at the moment, from the point of view of a modern, multicultural, multi-ethnic nation-state, Murmu’s victory is the victory of representation. She carries the dual identities of marginalisation that have been a hurdle to India’s reputation as an otherwise progressive position in world politics – gender and ethnicity.
That India is a patriarchal society where gender determines access to societal privileges is well established. More relevant to Murmu’s candidature is her ethnic identity as an Adivasi.
Adivasis have long been treated as second-class citizens, marginalised and pushed to the periphery. Much of educated India may not be even aware of the etymological meaning of the term Adivasi – or indigenous inhabitant.
Only a certain form of knowing, being and thinking has been deemed acceptable in the modern nation-state of India and indigeneity has remained an exotic term of othering the Adivasi communities as non-modern.
At the same time, the push to incorporate the Adivasis into the mainstream has led to atrocities over the years. After all, difference breeds contempt and the narrow understanding of unity is only believed to practically thrive in similarities.
Rapid industrialisation has meant that Adivasis have lost their forests to the state, becoming aliens on their own land and termed as “encroachers”. Laws and policy policies are based on mainstream assumptions and do not factor in Adivasis.
Soon, an amendment to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, will allow for the forest land of the Adivasis to be snatched and handed over to private companies. Adivasi rights organisations have already said the move undermines tribal and environmental rights. How many educated, non-Adivasi individuals know or care about such concerns?
Adding to these struggles is the fact that the representation of Adivasis in institutions such as education, judiciary, media and top cadre of bureaucracy is alarmingly low.
The architect of the Indian Constitution, BR Ambedkar, while delivering his final address in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, said, “We must make our political democracy a social democracy. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”
Ambedkar also said, “Social democracy is a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principle of life. They form a trinity together and one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.” This endures after 75 years of independence.
In the recent years, through the consistent efforts of parties such as the Republican Party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the concerns of the Adivasis have made an impression on national politics. There is a realisation that the ruling elite cannot ignore marginal voices, which have the potential to bring in a new paradigm of development.
But as Dalit politics in Independent India shows, it is easy for these potentially powerful subaltern struggles to be pulled into manipulative politics and opportunistic alliances with upper caste-parties, which dismantled the very foundation of the egalitarian social order. This defeats the cause of the movements entirely. What remains is a tangled identity politics with no efforts towards true representation.
The election of Murmu, then, is indeed a cause for celebration. She is the face of hope that has brought some solace to those concerned about the long-drawn struggle for Adivasi representation. But this celebration also points to how identity politics – caste, gender, creed, tribe – seems like the reality of the modern Indian nation-state even after seven decades of vowing to move away from it.
Merely having the first female Adivasi president is not the final goal for India. It is through Murmu’s actions, decisions and political assertions over the course of her term that this celebration has to be justified. The thin line between actually representing Adivasi concerns as a torch-bearer or being limited to the politics of upper class and caste hegemony over marginal communities needs to be toed carefully. It is a difficult position to be in.
There is hope that Murmu, a former school teacher, a successful governor and now the head of state of the Republic of India will not end up as political tokenism. Rather, it is in her spirit as a leader to acknowledge the very idea of social justice that Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, Maha-dalits, minorities and a large section of the invisible marginal population of India is striving for.
We welcome you, Madam President.
Bijayani Mishra is an Assistant professor at Maitreyi College, in the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.
Sabiha Mazid teaches Sociology at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University.