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Mainstream, VOL LX No 35 New Delhi, August 20, 2022

Droupadi Murmu - Will She Make for a People’s President ? | A K Biswas

Friday 19 August 2022, by A K Biswas

Her Excellency the 15th President of the sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic of India, sworn in by Justice N. V. Ramana, the Chief Justice of India holds promise for an extraordinary era. Her swearing ceremony was adorned by dignitaries who included, beside others, the outgoing President of India, Ramnath Kovind, the Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, the Prime Minister and the members of his Council of Ministers, Governors and Chief Ministers of various states, etc.

A Santal, she hails from Rairangpur under district Mayurbhanj, Odisha. Her accomplishment is monumental. We who belong to the rural India, starkly bereft of even an elementary school, can well realize the implications of her rise to India’s highest office. She has articulated the aspirations of millions of poor and deprived sons and daughters of the soil.

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed her election to the Republic’s highest office as “a ray of hope for our citizens, especially the poor, marginalized and the downtrodden.” That she could be “a ray of hope” for them was demonstrated by her as the Governor of Jharkhand with aplomb at a critical juncture. She had stonewalled the proposed amendments to the Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act (1908) and Santal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act, (1949), which sought “to give rights to tribals to make commercial use of their lands, while ensuring that the ownership of land does not change.” [1] While returning those two bills, Her Excellency had asked the Jharkhand Government to explain “how tenancy land amendments would help the masses. She has also forwarded the 192 protest petitions that the Raj Bhavan has received from various organisations against the proposed amendments.” [2] The query raised Her Excellency could not be explained cogently explained by the Government. With surgical precision, the attempt to hoodwink the Governor was thus nailed on the head.

Of 3,29,88,134 population of Jharkhand in 2011, the census returned 86,45,042 tribals of whom, 78,68,061 were rural and 7,76,892 urban-based. [3] This explains why the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act 1908 and Santal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949 were returned unscathed. We are not in any shadow of doubts that the Governor had acted with uncommon sagacity to safeguard interests of the tribal communities.

Natural resources, e. g., forests, rivers, hills and mountains and mines across the country are the targets of the corporate world to quench their pecuniary rapacity. Long ago, Gandhiji had uttered what could be a universal warning:

 “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.’

Corporate greed is fuelled by blind instinct of profiteering, regardless of well-being of the general masses, if not the nation. Tens of millions of people living and surviving in forests have been encountering impact of activities of the avaricious corporate world routinely. The amendment of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949, if assented to by Her Excellency, would have spelt, by now, disaster for millions of tribal populations living there for generations.

The poor, marginalized and the downtrodden of India, in deep distress, need powerful patron to safeguard their rights and privileges enshrined in and guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Their world has been falling apart in the face of unprecedented problems, most crucial being mounting unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, gnawing sense of insecurity and helplessness for life and dignity. The scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, backward classes and minorities are exposed to the vagaries of brutal highhandedness and atrocities from a section of the arrogant countrymen. Rapes, murders, criminal intimidation, dispossession as also destruction of properties, humiliation and casteist slur targeting them are like carnival to a section of privileged as also tyrannical Indians.

In an emotional appeal to the countrymen on August 7, 2016 at Hyderabad, the Prime Minister told, “if you have to attack, attack me. Stop attacking my Dalit brethren. If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers.” [4] Nonetheless the spate of savage attacks against the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes showed no sign of abetment. Nobody in the country need any reason for murdering, raping, humiliating, or abusing a dalit or tribal anywhere in the country. A 9-year-old Indra Meghawal, a scheduled caste student of a private school of Jalore district in Rajasthan was so brutally beaten by his teacher that he died on the eve of 75th Independence Day! The thirsty boy’s crime was that he touched the upper caste teacher’s drinking water pot. [5] This country takes immense pride in humanism and brotherhood.

Long ago, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar uttered a warning “Let not tyranny have freedom to enslave.” [6]

The scheduled castes and tribes across India, subjected to relentless tyranny, might be recalling the critical warning the great fighter of their causes, life and dignity had uttered.

Barely a year ago an IIT Faculty, Kharagpur on camera, which circulated in social media, was seen screaming hysterically (or ferociously?) at her students---all “SC, ST, OBCs and those with Disabilities.”

“You bloody bastard, this is also on your parents. Do you have any shame? Are you in school, bloody bastards?”  [7]

The faculty teaching in the prestigious temple of modern Indian learning, by no stretch of imagination, could be viewed as a fringe element whose regard for human personality and dignity is best exemplified by her frenzied outburst. The Prime Minister’s impassioned appeal, it seems, fell on deaf ears of his countrymen with no hope for remedy in sight, does it?

Crime and criminal justice

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2020 reported a total of 50,291 cases registered for committing crime against Scheduled Castes (SCs), showing an increase of 9.4% over 2019 (45,961 cases). Crime rate registered showed an increase from 22.8 in 2019 to 25.0 in 2020. The same report also revealed cases of crime/atrocities against Scheduled Tribes (STs) registered were 8,272 for committing crime against Scheduled Tribes (STs), marking an increase of 9.3% over 2019 (7,570 cases). Crime rate registered increased from 7.3 in 2019 to 7.9 in 2020. [8]

The law enforcing authorities, across the nation, lack commitment to redress grievances of the SC, ST, etc. The conviction rates in crime against them is abysmal to embarrass any man with an iota of conscience and sensitivity.

Campaigns against the President-elect

While the elated nation was busy, congratulating the President-elect, attacks were launched against Her Excellency by a high-ranking executive of a Delhi-based media house. India Today Group, his employer, sacked its Kolkata based Deputy General Manager Indranil Chatterjee on July 22, 2022 for his ‘extremely derogatory post’ against Madam Draupadi Murmu. The employer termed his post as “hurtful and against the basic principles of human decency.”  [9]

The deputy general manager had exposed to the bedrock his orthodoxy, if not hatred while commenting on the President-elect. “Few chairs are not meant for “All” & have a dignity attached to them.” His invective ran further, “Do we allow a sweeper to perform Durga Puja? Can a Hindu teach at a Madrasah? These are nothing but cheap socio-political gimmicks of the ruling party in creating a Rubber Stamp Constitutional Head, so that laws can be passed easily showing middle finger to the Opposition parties.” [10]

Indranil Chatterjee continued to cannonade at the 15th President terming her as an “insult” to her predecessors, e. g., “APJ Abdul Kalam, Pranab Mukherjee, S. Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, Rajendra Prasad and others.” [11]

Someone from the cine world launched equally virulent campaigns against Madam Draupadi Murmu on announcement of her candidature for the highest office by the National Democratic Alliance. On June 27, 2022, Ram Gopal Varma posted a mindboggling tweet, “If Droupadi is the President, who are the Pandavas? And more importantly, who are the Kauravas?” His tweet had stirred predictable controversy and attracted a sharp reaction from the public. [12]

The inheritance of the People’s President

Col. Edward Tuite Dalton, as Commissioner, served the Chota Nagpur Division in the nineteenth century for a long period. His observations on the Santals may be recalled:

 “Santals who, under the example and precept of Bengali Hindus, have abjured some practices considered impure by the latter, are called Sat Santals, that is, pure Santals; but there is a national antagonism between them and the Hindus that prevents any close fraternization or communion between the races.” [13]

Many districts of Chota Nagpur Division were devasted by severe famine in 1865-66, compelling the authorities to launch relief measures including depots for supplying cooked food to the famine-stricken people. Referring the Santals, Edward Dalton recorded with a sense of guilt and helplessness that,

“They (Santals) are not over-particular about food, but nothing will induce them to eat rice cooked by a Hindu, even by a Brahman. Unfortunately, during the famine of 1866 it was not known to us. The cooks, who prepared the food and distributed at the relief centres were all Brahmans, and it was supposed that this would suit all classes, but the Santals kept aloof, and died rather than eat from hands so hateful to them.” [14]

Famine during the same period affected identically Manbhum, another district. The chronicler of the Indian Empire, William Hunter documented that to relieve the starving people, the government started kitchens for supplying cooked food.

“In spite of this, the Santals, who were suffering severely, would not come to the depots, and it was supposed that they were too independent to receive alms. The real reason was, that a pure-bred Santal will not touch food that has been cooked by a Brahman, and all the cooks at the depots were Brahmans.”

The famine in Manbhum embraced 3818.68 square miles with number of houses being, 122,045 and population affected, 511,777. Deaths of 33,296 persons were reported by the police and the zamindars. [15] The extent and intensity of animosity against the cooks in an environment marked by grime personal tragedies of the Santal perhaps, as recorded above, had no parallel in human history!

Four and half decades later in 1911, the census report documented that the Santals of Bihar and Orissa

“(1) deny the supremacy of the Brahmans;
(2) do not receive mantra from a Brahman;
(3) eat beef and do not reverence the cow;
(4) are denied access to the interior of ordinary Hindu temples; and
(5) cause pollution, by touch or within a certain distance.”  [16]

Bengal returned 669,420 and Bihar and Orissa 1,399,450, aggregating 20,68,870 Santals in 1911. [17]

The national antagonism between the Santals and the Hindus notably against Brahmans, as aforementioned, underlined Commissioner Dalton that “They (Santals) have no tradition to account for this bitter feeling. The animosity remains, though its cause is forgotten.”  [18]

It may be of interest to know that Bhumij, Chakma, Jogi or Jugi, Kora, Munda, Oraon, Savar, and Tipara, likewise, besides Santals, denied “the supremacy of the Brahmans.” [19]

With respect to supply of drinking water, P. C. Tallents, ICS census superintendent of Bihar and Orissa in 1921 stated that “the man who supplies drinking water to thirsty passengers is still, except in parts of Chota Nagpur, a Brahman.”  [20] Why the authorities did not engage similar watermen for passengers in railway junctions and stations in Chota Nagpur? The waterman, colloquially known, was pani pande. The colonial masters perhaps bowing to the sentiment of the tribal population in Chota Nagpur did not engage Brahman waterman who, varied in numbers ---from 1 to 7 depending on the importance of railway stations all over United Provinces (present Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar. Four watermen supplied water at each station, e. g., Sonepur, Darbhanga, Thana Bihpur whereas 7 at Barauni but in other stations they were fewer in numbers. [21]

Karl Marx had expressed robust hope that introduction of railway “will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labor, upon which rest the Indian caste, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.” [22] He was grossly wrong. Railway rather helped solidify castes. On July 22, 1921 Bihar and Orissa Legislative Council, interalia, adopted resolution, urging the Government of India “for supply of pure and wholesome food to Indian passengers at reasonable rates from the stalls of railway licensed food vendors and also necessity of establishment of refreshment rooms for orthodox Hindu passengers.”  [23]

The colonial authorities in order to appeasing Hindu orthodoxy, professional confectioners “by caste Brahmans or Halwai” were employed at all railway junction stations and other important stations. At Gorakhpur, Muzaffarpur, Narkatiaganj and few other stations Mohammadan vendors are also employed. [24]

A day before her swearing, the President-elect, Madam Droupadi Murmu was subjected to purificatory rituals by two priests who sprinkled some water, flower etc. along with muttering of Sanskrit verses. Video of this event went viral on social media. None of her predecessors was subjected to any ritual as this. Many people are wondering: was such a ritual constitutionally sanctioned or extra-constitutional? The mainstream media, print and/or electronic, noticeably shied away to highlight the event.

On the eve of 1941 census operations, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who founded Hindu Mahasabha, had launched widespread propaganda with a view to allure the untouchables and tribals as Hindus to enhance the Hindu strength. His perspective documented in a Diary quoted hereunder is delicious to the context:

“We wanted that Hindu solidarity must grow and; we wanted that caste prejudices should disappear. We, therefore, declare that we should not indicate our castes but call ourselves Hindus in our census returns. This was bitterly opposed by a section of Scheduled Castes people.” [25]

Jogendranath Mandal, the Namasudra leader of Bengal had crossed swords with Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee and fiercely opposed his pretentious campaigns for hacking untouchables and tribals to increase the strength of the Hindus under the garb of census operations. Dr. Mookerjee overlooked the irony which irritated Jogendra Nath Mandal. Mandal had ridiculed that the upper castes flatly ignored such propaganda. Their standing in society and the country survives on their caste identity caste, without which their social dominance and respectability would grossly erode and identity erase. Their ancestors laboured endlessly for creation, by grotesque imagination, huge mass scriptures for perpetuation of castes as a pyramid.

Established in 1925, the Hindu Mission’s major objective was to bring Santhals, Garos, Balus, Banais, Khasias, Oraons, Mundas, Mikirs, Miris, Lushais, Kukis, Lalungs, Kacharis, Rabhas and Meches of Bengal, Bihar and Assam into Hindu fold through calculated deception and brainwashing. The Mahasabha pretended and preached that these inhabitants of Hindustan were fundamentally Hindus. The Mission aimed to:

(1) preach and propagate the Hindu religion and culture;
(2) reform and readjust orthodox Hindu society in the light of Hindu ideals;
(3) reclaim all those who or whose ancestors once wandered away from the parent faith of Hinduism; and
(4) unite the followers of all creeds and doctrines of Indian and non-Indian origin into one great religious brotherhood, “spiritualising them with the sole enfranchising ideals of Sanatan Dharma”. [26]

The tribes were advised to (1) record “Hindu” as their religion; (2) “Kshatriya” as their caste; and (3) “Sinha” or “Ray” as their family name. The Hindu Mission emphasized on special propaganda to be undertaken to see that these instructions were carried out uniformly in all places. [27]

 The combined efforts by the Hindu Mission and the Hindu Mahasabha caused havoc to the tribes as revealed by outstanding leader Jaipal Singh Munda in the Constituent Assembly in 1946 as the elected representative from Ranchi in Chota Nagpur. He highlighted the achievement of the Hindu Mahasabha.

“Ever since the Hindu Mahasabha became a militant political organisation, the census figures have never been reliable or accurate.... Take for instance, the Central Provinces. You compare the figures of Adibasis there, say in 1941; take the censuses of 1921, 1931 and 1941. You find in between 1911 and 1941 the figure gets reduced by 18 lakhs. 35 [28]

In a concluding remark, we may state that the tribal communities of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bengal and Assam are in a restive state. About 500 of their representatives, both male and female in traditional attire, sat on fast and staged recently dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi under the banner of Rashtriya Adivasi Samaj Dharma Raksha Abhiyan and invited attention of the authorities. They demanded inclusion of Sarna Code in the religion column in the next census. At the end of their dharna, the demonstrators submitted memoranda to the President of India, Prime Minister, Home Minister, Union Tribal Affairs Minister and Census Commissioner for redress of their grievances.

It will be of interest to watch whether their loud and unambiguous demand for Sarna Code as Hindu will fructify or not. They have already aired their programme to hold a massive demonstration at Ramlila Ground, Delhi in February-March, 2023 if their demands went unheeded till then. Any attempt at Hinduisation of the tribal communities will, make no mistake, face a serious challenge. [29]
Demands for enumeration caste in the upcoming census has been voiced too loudly from various fora to escape attention.

(Author: A K Biswas is a retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur.)


[1The Indian Express, June 27, 2017, Tenancy laws: Jharkhand Governor returns Bill.

[2India Today, July 3, 2017, Tribal Tenancy Act: Jharkhand CM on backfoot as Governor Droupadi Murmu returns bills seeking amendments.

[3The Times of India, June 1, 2013 Marginal fall in tribal population.

[4The First Post, August 7, 2016. “Shoot me if you want, but stop attacking my Dalit brothers,” PM

[5Anandabazar Patrika, Kolkata, 15th August, 2022. A front newsitem saying the dalit died for drinking water from his teacher’s pot.

[6Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Thacker and Co., Bombay, 1945, p. 199.

[7The Wire, April 27, 2021, “Caught on Video, IIT Kharagpur Faculty Abuses SC, ST, OBC Students and Those With Disabilities.”

[8Crime in India, 2020, Statistics Volume I, National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, pp. xiii-xiv.

[9Indian Today, 22 July, 2022, India Today Group sacks Kolkata based General Manager Indranil Chatterjee for ‘extremely derogatory post’ against President-elect Draupadi Murmu.

[10Ibid.

[11Ibid.

[12Ibid.

[13Edward Tuite Dalton, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, Calcutta, Superintendent of Government Printing, 1892, p. 214.

[14Edward Tuite Dalton, op cit, p.238.

[15W. W. Hunter, ICS, Statistical Account of Bengal, Vol. XVII, Districts of Singbhum, Tributary State of Chutia Nagpur and Manbhum, London, Trubner & Co., 1877, pp. 344-345.

[16Census of India, 1911, Vol. V, Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and Sikkim, Part I, Report by L. S. S. O’Malley, ICS, Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1913, pp. 232-233.

[17Ibid., p. 233.

[18Edward Tuite Dalton, op. cit. p. 214.

[19Census of India, 1911, Vol. V, Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and Sikkim, Part I, Report, op. cit. pp. 232-233.

[20Census of India, 1921, Volume VII, (Bihar and Orissa) Part I Report, by P. C. Tallents, ICS, Superintendent Government Printing, Bihar and Orissa, Patna, p. 234.

[21Enquiry into Complaints Regarding the Working of the Bengal and North-Wester Railway by J. Coats, Senior Inspector Railways (Circle No. 3, Lucknow, February 6-12, 1922, Vol. I Report, Royal Printing Press, Lucknow, p. 17-18 quoted by A. K. Biswas in Understanding Bihar,2nd edition, Blumoon Books, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 235-236.

[22Karl Marx and Frederick Angels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Fifth Impression, Moscow quoted by A. K. Biswas in Understanding Bihar,2nd edition, Blumoon Books, New Delhi, 2001, p. 234.

[23Ibid., p. 237.

[24Ibid., pp. 237-236.

[25Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Leaves from a Diary, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 45.

[26A. K. Biswas, Census of India 2021: History, Religion, caste and Deception in Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 13 New Delhi March 14, 2020.http://mainstreamweekly.net/article9235.html

[27Ibid.

[28Ibid.

[29The Telegraph Online, Kolkata, December 8, 2021, Sarna Code: Tribals sit in dharna to demand inclusion in census.

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