Looking beyond tokenism in a President

It is over a month since Droupadi Murmu became the 15th President of India.  She is the second woman and the first person from a tribal community to occupy the highest office in the land. This is an achievement, no doubt. There is hope that her ascent to the highest office will ensure that tribal voices are heard in New Delhi, that the tribal agenda is placed at the forefront of policy making and that she can leave a mark so that we can end what tribal communities perceive as “centuries of neglect”.

Are symbols and figureheads helping the marginalised classes of India?

Tribal leaders are pinning hope on her work in the past. They cite the stand she took as Governor of Jharkhand, when it seemed tribal rights would be compromised. This included returning a bill seeking amendments in land laws during the previous BJP government’s term or changes in the Tribal Advisory Council that the present JMM – headed government wanted to make. However, it may have been forgotten that it was difficult for her to continue standing up against the State government. In 2016–2017, the Raghubar Das ministry sought amendments to the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949. The amendments aimed at making available tribal land for commercial use by giving the right to the tribal owners to lease their land. Although she returned the bill with mounting opposition, the State government did finally succeed in making the proposed changes allowing it to acquire tribal land “in public interest for purposes like infrastructure development”.

Thanks to the Ambedkarite vision of political representation of marginalised and discriminated Indian classes through affirmative action, which he agreed to in the absence separate electorates, SC and ST votes have become a decisive factor for any political party to be in power.

It is true that a President in the Indian constitutional system has limited powers; she or he must act on the advice of the council of ministers, which is where the real executive power rests under the Parliamentary form of government. It may not be easy to make space for an agenda of tribal empowerment led by the President. But she will carry tremendous influence and can nudge and create a sense of sensitivity, and in that sense her role can be more than symbolic. This will be a good achievement and an admirable goal after her predecessor Ramnath Kovind, a Dalit President, who could not do much in terms of bringing to the forefront and increasing awareness let alone moving to improve the lot of Dalits.

Cynics will say that following a Dalit as President, it was important to have a tribal leader as President keeping in mind the 2024 general elections. After all, the SC and ST reserved Lok Sabha constituencies add up to 130 seats. Thanks to the Ambedkarite vision of political representation of marginalised and discriminated Indian classes through affirmative action, which he agreed to in the absence separate electorates, SC and ST votes have become a decisive factor for any political party to be in power. This is of course regardless of whether or not, the SC and ST parliamentarians represent the interests of their communities.  The present Government has been very careful in ensuring caste and tribe-based representation. After having a minister, Renuka Singh Saruta, from the powerful Gond community, Droupadi Murmu has been selected thanks to her identity as a Santhal, the third most significant tribal group in India with a population of over 6.6 million.

The issues of deprivation of forest land, the non-implementation of PESA, malnutrition and hunger deaths of tribals did not find a mention in her speech which spoke of the story of the phenomenal rise of India as a great nation. But then, this is only the beginning of her term and she has five years ahead.

But ultimately, are symbols and figureheads helping the marginalised classes of India? Is having a tribal or a Dalit as President bettering, even slightly, the lot of these groups. It cannot be said so.

Looking back, unlike K. R. Narayanan, the first Dalit President who had an independent mind and committed passion for social justice. Ramnath Kovind appeared eager to please the government, including signing the papers at midnight to ensure that the BJP candidate could take oath as a Chief Minister in Maharashtra before the world awoke.

Droupadi Murmu has time to prove whether or not she stands for tribal rights as the first tribal President. It may not be comforting that her first address to the nation as a President on the eve of the 76th Indian Independence did not mention tribals or their rights. The issues of deprivation of forest land, the non-implementation of PESA, malnutrition and hunger deaths of tribals did not find a mention in her speech which spoke of the story of the phenomenal rise of India as a great nation. But then, this is only the beginning of her term and she has five years ahead.

Today’s situation may spell hope with a President who has the rather special qualification of a lived experience so that she knows what it means to continue to be oppressed in a land we call free.

We have several examples of leaders who have risen from tribal leadership to create transformation. Few would know that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was from the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe from Mveza village in South Africa. He rose to be one of the biggest leaders of our time. Closer home, it was the heroic death of Birsa Munda that compelled the British to enact the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy act which protected tribal land from being transferred through unscrupulous means to non-tribal use.

We may also not set our expectations too high. Here is someone who has overcome much difficulty and has traversed a painful, hard path to become Governor of a State and now President of India. We can also hope that she will stand by the poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden in her own way, using the enormous influence that she will have as President and even beyond the one term she is elected for.

Should the Indian President represent the interests of her or his own class and caste? I disagree. She is President for all of India – all sections, all groups, all communities, all interests. Yet, there would be little disagreement on the issue that the President should stand by and support the most marginalised citizens of India.

She is President for all of India – all sections, all groups, all communities, all interests. Yet, there would be little disagreement on the issue that the President should stand by and support the most marginalised citizens of India.

Unfortunately, we are as a nation governed by contradictions. We are disturbed and agitated with the system of caste-based reservations, disregarding the fact that it was a complete dismissal of the marginalised communities from the system and political representation that necessitated the introduction of reservations. The oppression continues to this day. 

Tribals and other marginalised backward groups too face contradictions. They have assured political representation through reservation but yet feel powerless in the absence of good leadership that can sincerely represent their interests. Today’s situation may spell hope with a President who has the rather special qualification of a lived experience so that she knows what it means to continue to be oppressed in a land we call free.

(The writer is the founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organisation fighting for human rights and has also served as a convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights)

Share This -