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Home > 2022 > Rubber stamp or no, Murmu scores big for Adivasis | John Dayal

Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

Rubber stamp or no, Murmu scores big for Adivasis | John Dayal

Friday 22 July 2022, by John Dayal

President-elect Draupadi Murmu, the first person from an indigenous peoples group to be in Rashtrapati Bhawan, has raised hopes among her 1.30 billion fellow citizens. Independent India’s 15th President may not be able to curb the corporate sector’s march into her beloved forests of central India, or ensure more constitutional posts for Scheduled Tribes, or to keep large numbers of their youth out of jail on trumped-up charges, but her ethnicity is surely a marker in the march of the Adivasis for a share in the country’s political sunshine.

The 1958-born Santhal from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, easily beat the joint Opposition candidate, former Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha, riding votes from several non-BJP groups and almost every Tribal legislator across party lines. If there is any comfort for Mr Sinha, it is in that he received more votes than any of the losing candidates since the time of the first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad.

Getting a President from amongst women, or Dalits and Indigenous groups, is tokenism; but even tokenism is a big deal in a country swaying under the staunch and ancient caste system and patriarchal mores. However, tokenism in reality can only go so far. Mr KR Narayanan, India’s first Dalit President, couldn’t do much for the uplift of the Dalit community, and its victimisation at the hands of India’s self-styled Upper Castes. But Narayanan did ensure that the Supreme Court would get its first Dalit Chief Justice. That chief justice KG Balakrishnan failed in the trust reposed in him, is another matter. The second Dalit President, Mr Ram Kovind, is seeing his tenure go past in a blink, with absolutely nothing to show for it.

Under the Constitution, even the best or most audacious of Presidents quickly find their executive powers are limited to calling the leader of the largest political group to form a government after a general election, or when an incumbent government loses a vote of confidence. For everything else, the President is correctly pilloried in Indian political lore as a rubber stamp. As with Mr. Kovind, Mrs. Murmu too has been installed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who brooked no opposition and who, in any case, takes his policy and personnel decisions on his own, without caring much for cabinet or parliament.

Modi appears to have played a masterstroke by nominating Murmu – a widow, a proclaimed staunch Hindu who has been a teacher, councillor, legislator, and State Governor – as the ruling party’s candidate for the presidency, and rightly hopes to score in byelections in several States with sizable Adivasi populations.

India’s Adivasis nevertheless fear major dilution of the Fifth and Sixth Schedules under Article 244 of the Constitution, which gives them self-governance in specified tribal majority areas in nine States. Threats exist to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Mines and Minerals Act, 1957, and there is an attempt to bypass the Panchayats Act, 1996. At least 181 municipalities are functioning unconstitutionally in the Scheduled Areas of seven States. This government is committed to facilitate transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals, and corporate bodies. The new President will not be able to stop any of these amendments to existing laws.

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