Odisha finds itself at a remarkable point in its political journey. For the first time, a slew of Adivasi leaders from the state have occupied commanding positions in state and national politics, while most of the prominent mainstream Odia politicians languish on the sidelines.

Given that Adivasi communities account for roughly 23% of the state’s population, Odisha has seen many Adivasi politicians. In the 1990s, two Adivasi chief ministers from the Congress – Hemanand Biswal and Giridhar Gamang – ruled the state briefly. But the Odias in the politically-dominant coastal tract snobbishly looked upon the Adivasi chief ministers as placeholders while their own leaders were busy settling their disputes.

Other Adivasi leaders from Odisha, who rose to the position of state and Central ministers, were usually seen as meeting an inclusivity requirement for the party in power. Odisha’s reigning political parties, thus, sought to accommodate Adivasi identity while treating individual leaders as dispensable.

Hemanand Biswal and Giridhar Gamang. Credit: Government of Odisha, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But in the past five years, something changed: Adivasi leaders appear to have edged out mainstream Odia politicians. The first sign was the elevation of Droupadi Murmu from governor of Jharkhand to President of India – something few in Odisha had anticipated.

In fact, many Odias in the coastal tract were expecting Governor Biswa Bhushan Harichandan, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s veteran politician from the Jan Sangh days, to succeed Ram Nath Kovind as president.

In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, though Odisha gave 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats to the BJP, Jual Oram is one of only two Central ministers from the state. Starting his sixth Lok Sabha term and third stint as Central minister, Oram is one of the tallest Adivasi leaders in the country.

Dharmendra Pradhan is the only other Central minister from Odisha. But Pradhan has not enjoyed a seat at the high table as a mass leader of mainstream Odia identity. Instead, he has been a key organisational figure with absolute loyalty to the BJP’s current national leadership. He has remained in the inner circle of the BJP even when he was a Rajya Sabha member from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, from the year 2012 till his election victory in Odisha’s Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency this time.

For the Congress, its most promising leader in Odisha is the party’s lone Adivasi MP from the state: Saptagiri Ulaka. Part of many of the Congress’s important political committees over the past five years, Ulaka was re-elected to the Koraput Lok Sabha seat by a solid margin in 2024 and is expected to rise higher in the party ranks.

The appointment of Adivasi leader Mohan Majhi as Odisha chief minister was also equally unexpected. In his campaign speeches for Odisha’s simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised that the next chief minister would be “a son or daughter of Odisha and one who respects its soil and culture”.

Credit: Mohan Charan Majhi @MohanMOdisha/X.

This led to an assumption, especially among the middle-class and local elites in the coastal Odisha tract, that the choice of chief minister would chime with their views of an “authentic Odia” – such as Pradhan, other BJP politicians like Suresh Pujari, Pratap Sarangi, Sambit Patra, Baijayant Panda – or at the most a dark horse that bore a likeness to these candidates.

The term “likeness” refers to the implicit benchmarks constituting Odia identity: middle to forward caste, middle or upper-class and enjoying the confidence of coastal Odisha inhabitants if not one of them. It was hoped that the choice of chief minister would cater explicitly to the third criterion while adhering to at least one of the first two.

However, such simplistic and inflexible ideas about Odia identity have persisted due to lack of political evolution of the opinion makers and influential groups in the coastal districts of Odisha. In their minds, Odia identity remains frozen in time – from the days of the language movement that resulted in the formation of the first province in the subcontinent along linguistic lines in 1936.

In the early 20th century, the Odia identity movement had astutely harnessed three prevailing forces: political activism, literary activism and activism centred around school education.

The most notable political activists of those times were Madhusudan Das and Gopabandhu Das. Literary giants included Fakir Mohan Senapati, Radhanath Ray, and Madhusudan Rao. Pandit Nilakantha Das, Acharya Harihar Das, and Godabarisa Mishra were the education reformists, who were equally important to the identity movement.

Two traits were common to all these figures: they overwhelmingly belonged to the tract presently called coastal Odisha and they hailed either from privileged castes or from middle-class and prosperous backgrounds.

Thus, the social composition of the Odia identity movement – mostly coastal elites who spoke Odia as their mother tongue or first language – has crafted an implicit image of who is a “pucca”, authentic Odia. This image is so deeply embedded in coastal Odisha’s psyche that few have noticed the structural forces that are now raising a parallel line of leadership powered by a different source: Adivasi identity.

Odia books in a library. Credit: Subhashish Panigrahi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

To understand the power equation between mainstream Odias and Adivasis in the state, one must re-examine the status of Odia identity after India gained its independence. Here, particular attention must be paid to the period from 1948 to 1956.

The Odia identity movement was carried on the shoulders of a petition-based, peaceful agitation. Emerging elites from the coastal tracts succeeded in bringing about the merger of various Odia-speaking tracts scattered within the Bengal Presidency, the Madras Presidency, and the Central Provinces.

For most Odias, the story ends in 1936 on a note of triumph over the birth of Odisha. But much was to happen 12 years later that would profoundly impact Odia identity and challenge the supremacy of the Odia language.

In 1948, 25 princely states merged with Odisha. A few months later, the kingdom of Mayurbhanj also joined the state. From then on, Odia identity came to experience repercussions that would have long term and historic significance.

This merger brought into the state a large demographic of Adivasi population whose mother tongue or first language was not Odia. The Adivasi communities’ mother tongues or first languages include Santali, Ho, Kui, Munda, Bonda, and Saura, among others. But this population was entitled to the same rights over Odisha as those speaking Odia as their mother tongue.

Moreover, the princely kingdoms of Seraikela and Kharsawan, which had initially merged with Odisha in 1948, joined Bihar within the same year following a revolt by the majority Adivasi population. Many Odias entertained hopes that these two areas would be reintegrated into Odisha in the future.

However, in 1956, the States Reorganisation Commission maintained status quo on Seraikela and Kharsawan. Massive protests, referred to as Seema Andolan or border protests, broke out in the districts of Puri, Ganjam, Cuttack, Sambalpur and Mayurbhanj. The ensuing violence eventually cost the iconic Odisha Chief Minister Naba Krushna Choudhury his chair.

A detail from a 1909 Imperial Gazetteer of India map. Credit: Great Britain India Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus unfolded the second impact of historic proportions on Odia identity. The intense emotions associated with Adivasi identity within the state could no longer be pressed into mute service of the hegemonic Odia identity. Mainstream Odia politicians could neither co-opt nor contain the ambitions of charismatic and educated Adivasi politicians such as Jaipal Singh Munda, who had a critical role to play in Odisha’s “loss” of Seraikela and Kharsawan.

In other words, Adivasi leaders could bypass the Odia identity scaffolding which could only offer them seats at a lower elevation. Instead of negotiating with Odia-speaking elites for a paltry share in power, these leaders could have their areas secede and merge with states keeping in mind the interests of Adivasi communities or directly join the steady march towards a pan-Indian Adivasi identity.

After taking leadership positions at the national level or in national political parties, a path emerged for Adivasi leaders to circle back and claim significant positions within their respective states. This is exactly what is now happening in Odisha as frontline positions are occupied by Draupadi Murmu, Jual Oram, Mohan Majhi and Saptagiri Ulaka.

This line of leadership also marks a departure from the last seven decades. Forward caste political figures from coastal Odisha districts – Harekrushna Mahtab, Biswanath Das, Naba Krushna Choudhury, Biju Patnaik, Nandini Satpathy, Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, and Naveen Patnaik – were until now the dominant personalities representing Odisha in national politics and then also led the state.

Last but not least, the rise of Adivasi politicians in Odisha is also remarkable because it clearly demonstrates the agency of these leaders in their own political advancement. This political process marks a clear contrast against subaltern Hindutva that patronisingly implies the co-optation of marginalised populations that are apparently passive and gullible.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Odisha.

This is the third article in a series on the Odisha elections. Read the first and second parts.