November 2016 marked a tumultuous period in Jharkhand. The Raghubar Das-led BJP government had passed amendments to two centuries-old land laws — the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Acts — that would have ensured easy transfer of land for industrial use. As the amendments led to massive protests by tribal communities across the state and with close to 200 delegations calling on then Governor Droupadi Murmu, eight months later, in June 2017, she returned the laws asking the government to clarify how the amendments would benefit tribals.
A key Raj Bhavan staffer who was privy to the events around that time says Murmu mulled over at the laws at a close-door meeting, at the end of which she made up her mind to send them back, saying, “Mere kalam se koi injustice nahi hoga (I will not let any injustice happen).”
As she sat it out for more than a year after her tenure as Governor, many in the BJP and outside predicted the end of the road for Murmu, a two-time former BJP MLA. Sources point to this incident of 2017 to say that Murmu, 64, now the NDA’s presidential candidate, and her “kalam (pen)” could be one to watch out for as she is set for a near-certain win in the July 18 presidential elections against the Opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha. A win would make Murmu India’s first tribal and second woman president.
Born in 1958, Murmu was the first girl in Uparbeda, one of the seven revenue villages in Uparbeda panchayat in Odisha’s tribal-dominated Mayurbhanj district, to go to college. Her father and grandfather were the traditional heads of the village council.
Murmu’s sister-in-law Sakramani Tudu recounts that when, after school, she expressed a wish to study further — unheard of in their Santhali household — the family approached a distant relative, an MLA, for help. “The MLA told her to go to Bhubaneswar for further studies,” says Sakramani. “And she made it all the way to Bhubaneswar without Google Maps,” chuckles Murmu’s banker daughter Itishree. A journey with few coordinates, but packed with resolve as Murmu graduated with a BA degree from Ramadevi Women’s College, now a University, in Bhubaneswar.
Soon after, Murmu started working as a clerk in the Odisha Secretariat and married Shyam Charan Murmu, a bank employee. “Later, the couple settled down in Rairangpur area of Mayurbhanj district and built a home,” says Shyam Charan Hansda, a former Congress MLA.
Murmu continues to live in the two-storey house that she built with her late husband. The entrance opens into a large living room that’s lined with plastic chairs for guests and party workers. One of the shelves has photographs of Murmu along with metal sculptures of tribal heroes. The walls are lined with framed photographs of Murmu with President Ram Nath Kovind, former President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
During the couple’s stay in Rairangpur, in the early nineties, Murmu began teaching at a nearby Aurobindo school, recounts former Congress MLA Shyam Charan Hansda, who has been close to the family.
Dilip Kumar Giri, who worked at the school, recounts: “I used to be part of the administration and Droupadi ji taught students Hindi, Odia, maths, geography etc, all for a small honorarium. We could see that she wanted to always help others. There was so much compassion in her.”
It was around this time that Murmu took her tentative steps into politics.
Raj Kishore Das, Biju Janata Dal MLA from Morada constituency in Mayurbhanj district, who was then with the BJP, recounts, “I first spotted Murmu during the early 90s when she taught at the Aurobindo school. I wondered, who is this educated, tribal woman who is selflessly teaching at a school? I was then the chairperson of the Rairangpur Notified Area Council (declared as a municipality in 2014). In those days, the BJP was trying to get a toehold in Odisha and was looking for dedicated leaders. There is a big Santhali population in Mayurbhanj district and the party decided to rope her in. But will she join, I wondered.”
It was also the time that the southern part of neighbouring Bihar was in social and political ferment over the Jharkhand movement, with some of it spilling over to Odisha’s Mayurbhanj and Rairangpur — where Murmu was based — owning to its dominant tribal population that took up the statehood cause.
Residents of the town say the fight for tribal land also had an impact on Murmu as she began working for tribals.
Naresh Murmu, one of the founding members of the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), which was among those at the forefront of the statehood movement, and now the working president of the International Santhali Council, says: “Tribals in Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar and Chhattisgarh all thought of themselves as ‘Jharkhandis’ since Jharkhand was formed as a separate tribal state in 2000. And now, 22 years later, we are likely to have the first tribal president. We thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but there is a long way to go for the tribal movement.”
In 1997, Murmu contested and won her councillor election. Das recalls, “As the chairman of the NAC, I put her in charge of the sanitation work — one of the most urgent jobs, but highly neglected because not many wanted to take it up. But Droupadi did. She would come in her Maruti 800, park it in the colony and ensure the cleaning was done under her supervision. People noticed her. I knew then that if she contested an election, she would definitely win, even become a minister some day. And that, of course, happened.”
Murmu was twice elected to the Odisha Assembly — in 2000 and 2004, when the BJP fought in alliance with the BJD — and went on to hold portfolios of Transport and Commerce and later, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries in the Naveen Patnaik-led coalition government. As transport minister, says Das, Murmu set up transport offices in all the 58 subdivisions of Odisha, including Mayurbhanj.
A BJP politician who spoke on condition of anonymity says, “Those days, there were various factions within the party. Some would talk behind my back to her, and others would talk about me to her. She said, ‘Let me block whoever comes to me with your complaints and you do the same. This way we all will progress’. I was stumped by her honest politics, something that’s completely missing these days.”
In 2009, she contested the Lok Sabha election from Mayurbhanj constituency, but lost as the BJD and BJP severed ties.
The electoral setback coincided with tumultuous period in her personal life. Over the next six years, she lost three of her closest family members — her eldest son Laxman Murmu in 2009, her younger son Sippun Murmu in 2013 and then her husband Shyam Charan Murmu in 2014 — in a series of unfortunate incidents.
MLA Raj Kishore Das says, “After her husband’s death, she cried incessantly and went through a very low phase. She was in great pain. She would also talk about how she had lost her five-year-old daughter many years ago. We somehow managed to convince her to start doing field trips,” recounts Das, adding that she found solace in spiritualism and associated herself with the Brahma Kumaris.
Soon after, in 2015, senior BJP leaders took the call to move Murmu to Jharkhand — as Governor.
Given that she served as Governor during both the NDA and UPA tenures — with Raghubar Das and Hemant Soren as CMs respectively — Murmu had a largely non-controversial stint between May 2015 and July 2021.
On the farm laws, Hindi as national language, gomutra and nationalism, among others, she largely stuck to the BJP line.
In a video conference on October 15, 2020, she said, “Ek Hindustani ko kam se kam apni bhasha, yani Hindi, to aani hi chahiye, saath mein hamein Hindi ka samman karna sikhna hoga (Every Indian should know their language Hindi and also respect it).”
But there were also instances when she refused to hold back.
Hailing from a party that has a complicated relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru and his legacy, Murmu has on more than one occasion freely expressed her admiration for India’s first prime minister.
At the start of the fifth session of the Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha in 2020, Murmu reminded everyone: “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once said, ‘By turning the portraits to the wall one cannot change the facts of the history’.” Earlier, on December 1, 2018, at the convocation ceremony of the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi, Murmu had, while talking about the role lawyers played in the freedom movement, hailed Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and B R Ambedkar and their contribution in the making of the Constitution.
But it is on the issue of tribals, a subject that she holds close to her heart, that she is known to be most expressive.
On November 24, 2018, speaking at an international conference on financial inclusion, Governor Murmu said that even though the Jharkhand state government (then headed by the BJP) and the Centre were working to extend the benefits of banking services and other schemes to tribals, the condition of SCs and STs “remain extremely poor”.
Murmu also called for the translation of literature on Adivasi languages and culture and held Lako Bodra and Raghunath Murmu, pioneers of the ‘Varaanchiti script’ of the Ho tribes and the Ol Chiki script of the Santhalis respectively, in high regard. She believed that the history of the Adivasis had not been presented well and that it needed to be “re-established”.
Those who recall her days in Raj Bhavan say that despite her high office, Murmu stuck to her simple lifestyle.
Nitin Madan Kulkarni, Principal Secretary (PS) in the Jharkhand government who was earlier PS to the Governor, said, “She is very humble. Once the aide-de-camp accompanied her to her house in Rairangpur, but there was not enough space for the officer, so the Odisha government had to make arrangements for his stay while Droupadi ji stayed in her house. Such was her simplicity.”
House Controller S S Parihar, who is in charge of running the Raj Bhavan operations, recounts that when Murmu first came as Governor, she directed that only vegetarian food would be cooked in the kitchen, but made exceptions for the guests and her staff.
Recalling an instance, Parihar says: “Then Home Minister Rajnath Singh had visited Raj Bhavan once and ma’am got to know that he ate fish. So the food was prepared in a separate place. But when Rajnath ji got to know that ma’am ate only vegetarian food, he insisted that he too would eat the same.”
One of the focus areas during her governorship were the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, Centre-run residential schools for girls from weaker sections. “There is not a single district in Jharkhand where she hasn’t visited a Kasturba Vidyalaya and interacted with the students.”
She also set up a residential school in Odisha’s Pahadpur village for children from economically weaker sections. Run by the family-run SLS Trust (initials of the three family members she lost: sons Sippun and Lakshman and husband Shyam Murmu), Murmu makes it a point to visit the school as often as she can.
Pragya Pramita Dhal, who studies in Class 9 in the school, says: “The last time Droupadi ji came here, she brought us geometry boxes, diaries and pens. She told us that if we want to become like her, we should work very hard.”
The day Murmu’s candidature was announced for the presidential election, security personnel posted outside her Rairangpur home had a tough time trying to convince her to meet a restricted gathering. “But she wouldn’t listen,” says one of the guards. “Hum unko samjhaye ki aap Rashtrapati banne ja rahi hain, aapko restriction mein rehna chahiye (We tried to tell her that she was going to be the next President, and that she shouldn’t be meeting so many people). But she replied that these were, after all, her people and she owes her position to them.”