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In the Mahabharata, the strongest character on the Pandava side is Draupadi. She challenges Yudhisthira’s right to stake her at dice, asking how a slave could stake another human being. She was ostensibly ‘rescued’ by Krishna, but her pride and courage in facing that assembly of hostile men and arguing the legal point showed that it was not she who needed saving but the men who were dishonouring her. Similarly, in Mahasweta Devi’s short story, Draupadi, Dopdi Mejhen, a Santhal woman, raped and wounded by the security forces, stands unarmed and naked before the commander and asks why she should be ashamed, when “there isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed.” And for the first time, the commander is “terribly afraid.”
It is these Draupadis the BJP and RSS want to obliterate, by removing Mahasweta Devi’s story from the DU English Honours course in August 2021 or demonstrating against a play in Haryana Central University in 2016. So when they now tell us Droupadi Murmu – soon to be India’s first Adivasi president – represents their commitment to the empowerment of tribals, this claim should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
The reality of the BJP’s “sabka saath, sabka vikas” slogan for the Adivasis is that they must sacrifice their lands and resources for other people’s vikas. In naming their single teacher schools after the Adivasi, Eklavya – who was made to sacrifice his thumb for the greater glory of the Kshatriya, Arjun – we see the real place that the Sangh assigns to Adivasis, or “Vanvasis” as they call them.
Under the BJP government in Chhattisgarh, 2003-18, villages were burnt, and thousands killed in Salwa Judum and subsequent operations. The first wave of forest evictions that led to the struggle for what eventually became the Forest Rights Act of 2006 happened in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime, and Modi’s government has just made the Act infructuous by issuing new rules under the Forest Conservation Act which make Scheduled Tribe consent the last requirement for forest diversion to industry rather than the first.
Mining had already benefitted from an earlier 2017 dilution of rules. Even though it could not overturn the social impact assessment and consent clauses of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 the Modi regime, along with BJP states, has succeeded in watering it down.
The RSS refuses to recognise Adivasi religion as distinct and worthy of respect; and Christian Adivasis have suffered attacks on their places of worship. It is true that the RSS fronts, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Vidya Bharati, run a chain of schools and hostels in Adivasi areas, filling a critical need where state provision has been lacking. But in the process, Adivasi children are converted into Hindutva followers, and the “social service” has a clear electoral value. The RSS-BJP cares little about Adivasis, except when it comes to mobilising them as foot soldiers against Muslims and Christians, as in Gujarat 2002 and Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2008 respectively. Adivasi numbers in prisons – as convicts and undertrials – is much higher than their percentage in the population.
The choice of Murmu as presidential candidate must be seen in light of the BJP’s outreach to Adivasis in order to strengthen the “Hindu” fold and win elections. The BJP clearly had electoral calculations in mind, such as the approaching elections in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and the Adivasi vote more broadly in 2024.
But at least the BJP recognises the importance of an Adivasi constituency. While presidents are increasingly reduced to rubber stamps, choosing an Adivasi rubber stamp over other rubber stamps matters, at least symbolically. It was the NDA which supported PA Sangma as its presidential candidate against Pranab Mukherjee, making this the second time they have proposed a tribal candidate. Murmu’s CV is no better or worse than that of Pratibha Patil, or most of the men elected to the post. The presidents who really upheld the Constitution stand out because they were so few.
In all the years that the Congress was able to get a president of its choice, it never bothered to nominate a Scheduled Tribe person. It is not as if the Congress did not have any candidates to choose from – take, for instance, the Adivasi Mahasabha leader Jaipal Singh, who was co-opted into the Congress, the late Rishang Keishing, former chief minister of Manipur, Kishore Chandra Deo, former minister of tribal affairs, or Arvind Netam, former minister of state in the Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao cabinets.
Yashwant Sinha is correct to say that he and Murmu represent different ideologies but it is blinkered of him to say that her Adivasi identity is irrelevant and he has done more for Adivasis as finance minister in the Vajpayee government than she has. He might at least have had the humility to acknowledge that his success had a lot to do with his ‘upper caste’ male background. In an ideal world, if education, health and resources were equalised, an Adivasi president should have been as likely as any other candidate, requiring no tokenism, from right or left.
Sadly, when it comes to treating Adivasis, the Congress and other parties, save the Left, have scarcely been any better. In the name of national security and “development”, the Congress has been responsible for massive human rights violations against tribal populations, both in Northeast and central India. Much of the progressive legislation of the UPA period came about due to pressure from the Left.
Scheduled Tribes are 8.6% of the country’s population and the only section for whom the presidential function directly matters to their identity – since the 5th Schedule mandates the president, through the governors, to look after Scheduled Areas. As Governor of Jharkhand, Murmu’s record of defending adivasi rights is mixed. She returned bills proposed by the BJP regime that aimed at changing the land tenure legislation – CNTA (Chhotanagapur Tenancy Act) and SPTA (Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act) – to make it easier for outsiders to take away Adivasi land, but thereafter she quickly passed anti-Adivasi changes in the Land Acquisition Act as well as the Freedom of Religion Bill 2017 which criminalises conversion. Perhaps she had been read the riot act.
It may be in vain, but one can only hope that despite being a loyal daughter of the RSS, Murmu will rise to the occasion. The Draupadi of the Mahabharata was also a loyal wife and daughter, but when faced with injustice, she dared to ask uncomfortable questions to all.
The writer is a sociologist, and author of The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar.