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The new President: Beyond the tokenism

Suraj Yengde writes: While the list of Presidents of India has been impressively diverse, it was missing an important Adivasi voice. It took the nation 75 years to find a suitable Adivasi leader.

Workers put up a giant hoarding of Draupadi Murmu for her felicitation, before she was announced as the country's new President, in New Delhi, India, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo)

Draupadi Murmu has become the 15th President of the Republic of India. The Constitutional framework of India is parliamentary, that is led by the elected representative and overseen by the first person of the country, the President of India. India inherited the presidential position equivalent to the Crown of England. However, unlike India, the United Kingdom does not have a written Constitution.

Murmu is the first Adivasi who has been elected to the apex position in India’s history. No person of Adivasi background has been elevated to such a stature. Born to a Santhal tribe of Odisha, Murmu has undoubtedly inspired and made a name for herself. The Santhal people are a defiant warrior clan resisting any form of coercion and colonisation. These native Indians strongly positioned their force against Brahminical-Aryan assault. They were among the first groups to take on foreign attackers.

While the list of Presidents of India has been impressively diverse, it was missing an important Adivasi voice. It took the nation 75 years to find a suitable Adivasi leader for the post.

The status of Adivasi representation in important fields remains grossly low. Adivasi students and scholars are nowhere to be found in important positions, and neither are scientists and thought leaders given their desired responsibility. Adivasi land is sold to business people, and they are displaced from their natural habitat.

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Now that Murmu is in the top spot, another form of tokenism might percolate. How the country and civil society make use of this opportunity is up to them. Expecting Murmu to be the frontrunner of Adivasi justice will be a misplaced judgment. Instead, the country should demand accountability from the party that has fielded her.

When a person is elevated to the position of President, one cannot expect them to stick to one agenda. With India’s first citizen’s calendar preoccupied with the lives of over 1.4 billion people, one can expect that her protocol position will help India gain favourable influence in the areas impacting indigenous people worldwide. The last time an indigenous person headed a country was Bolivia’s socialist leader, Evo Morales. The differences between ideologies and the career trajectory of Murmu and Morales are vast. However, with symbolism being their favourite pastime, the BJP-RSS might as well do it right.

Murmu’s life has been hit with unfortunate tragedies. Having lost her intimate family — husband, two children, brother, and mother — she has become a lone warrior, with only her daughter by her side.

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When President Ram Nath Kovind took over as the 14th President of India, the RSS sent a message to the public that it was sensitive to caste issues and that Dalit subordinates of the RSS still had a chance. While President Kovind was lauded as the Dalit President of India, his tenure was shy of anything to do with Dalits. It is akin to any Dalit official who refutes the image that might make them appear sensitive towards the society’s vulnerable section. It is the burden of choosing between purist morality over strategic responsibility. President Kovind did not exercise the executive power vested in him.

But he indirectly tried to speak to his constituency. One of the first issues he raised was hiring more judges and expanding the diversity in India’s courts. He asked to “select, nurture and promote the right talent from the lowest to the higher levels”. President Kovind’s order for judicial reforms boldly declared that nepotism had no way in the judicial system. At the same time, the President remained mum at the gruesome rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras in his home state.

The BJP is perhaps trying to trump the RSS by giving two prominent quotas — the SCs and STs — symbolic representation. While at the same time the condition of the marginalised groups in India is worsening. Earlier this week, Dinesh Khatik, a Dalit minister in the Uttar Pradesh cabinet, rebelled alleging discrimination and mistreatment in the Bisht government.

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Hope the fate of President Kovind is not repeated on President Murmu where their token face is substantiated with Brahminism as a benevolent hope.

Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

First published on: 24-07-2022 at 04:00:46 am
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