Droupadi Murmu’s house had been stalked frequently by Yama devta, the Hindu god of death, bringing in unbearable sadness. But her nomination as a presidential candidate by the Bharatiya Janata Party has brought the soul back into her life.
Not just her life, but the Santhal tribal community, residing in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha (where she is from) and Jharkhand are overwhelmed as well. Tribal families are aware that it is a symbolic gesture only but an important one.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s selection of Murmu for the post of President — dubbed on the ground as ‘pratham nagrik’ — has been received so well among Indian tribals that it has, overnight, opened the window of a rare opportunity for a civilisational push to bring them closer to mainstream India. It’s a tough call but an opportunity for sure.
Over the last few decades, the spread of education and better road networks have brought fundamental differences in tribal life in India. It requires a stronger push now because most of the substantial promises made to the tribals remain unfulfilled.
This isn’t a blown-up expectation.
The hunger for development
A single visit to Uperbeda, Murmu’s birthplace, Pahadpur, her husband’s family village, and Rairangpur, the district headquarters of Mayurbhanj — where Murmu, two-time MLA, has been living for many years — can give an idea of how the oldest inhabitants of India residing in forests are stirred up.
Murmu will be the first tribal and Odisha leader to become the President if elected.
The tribals are uniting solidly behind Murmu, just as the African-American community had extended their support to the elevation of Barack Obama.
The local unit of the BJP has put up hoardings showing Droupadi Murmu and PM Modi in towns and villages wishing for her victory.
Many local village residents have neither heard of Raisina Hill, New Delhi — Murmu’s new residential address after her likely victory — nor are they aware of the limitation of constitutional powers of the Indian President. But while praying for her ‘nirvachan’ (election), they are asking for more development in their forests.
The Santhals have revived their demand for the construction of a bypass road in Rairangpur on the Ranchi-Vijayawada highway. The locals of Uperbeda want the railway lines to be extended further from Badampahar and Gorumahisani — two legendary hillocks where iron ores are excavated and are symbols of tribal exploitation for decades in the area.
The residents around these iron ore deposits are complaining about the questionable management of the District Mineral Foundation, formed after the 2015 amendment of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 to help mining-affected communities. Their hunger for development is here to see.
Putti of Uperbeda
Sarswati Tudu, Murmu’s close relative and confidante, tells me, “All the villages in Mayurbhanj have organised rituals at our place of worship called Jhakhira. Our gods are Sal trees, animals, insects and plants. Whenever ‘mai’ (Murmu) comes to Uperbeda, she invariably prays at Jhakhira and Vad tree. We were told many years back that someone from Uperbeda will become a very big person in India.”
Then, she tells me a story.
“Our family is Tudu. We can’t marry within the Tudus. Droupadi got married into the Murmu family in the nearby village. The Tudu family is called the Sardar family because Droupadi’s father, Biranchi Narayan, and grandfather were the heads of the village panchayat. Our village is blessed by the Budha Rana pahad (pointing her finger at the nearby hill). Hamare liye pahad hi bhagwan hai (For us, the hill is our god). Budha Rana had seven daughters. Kamla and Bimla, two of the daughters, came down to our village. We built temples for these goddesses in 1967. Since then they have protected us. Droupadi has been a blessed daughter of Uperbeda. Already four families of Uperbeda have succeeded in politics. Kartik Tudu, our uncle, was a minister in Bhubaneshwar. He helped Droupadi complete matriculation and study in a college in Bhubaneshwar,” she said.
Droupadi was named after her paternal grandmother Droupadi Tudu, but her nick name is Putti. Her political career started in 1997 as a local councillor of the BJP.
Samay Tudu, her uncle and retired bank manager, says, “She is an emotional person but a firm woman. She is a jiddi (stubborn) woman. Her determination is strong. Don’t underestimate her capacity. She is well-read, can give speeches and understands what’s good for the tribal community. She has a strong sense of self-pride. Don’t call her a ‘rubber-stamp’.”
Rabindra Patnaik, Murmu’s family friend of 40 years and a journalist based in Rairangpur, says, “She is a simple woman of few needs. Her favourite food is Pakhala, a local watery dish made of rice and curd. She is a strict vegetarian, follows the Hindu religion and keeps away from superstitions while keeping faith in the tribal culture. When she was the governor of Jharkhand, she questioned the law, saying that it was not in the interest of tribals. She refused to sign off on it. In her primary school class, she was the topper in studies and sports. There were 40 boys and 8 girls in her class. As a norm, the topper becomes a monitor, but more than 55 years back, in a patriarchal society, she wasn’t allowed to. She fought hard and became the monitor.”
Droupadi Murmu isn’t a charismatic mass leader like Shibu Soren, but her credibility as a social worker in her constituency in Mayurbhanj is quite high.
Her social circle consists of modest friends. Patnaik claims, “She has never dabbled in iron ore money-spinning deals.” In most of her speeches before tribal audiences, Murmu says, “Remember we are equals. Apne ko chota nahin samajhna (Don’t consider yourself inferior).”
Emerging from a ‘tsunami’
Murmu’s personal life is a story of resilience and ‘self-pride’. There was an unforgettable moment for her in 2009 when her 25-year-old son Lakshman died unexpectedly after attending a gathering in Bhubaneshwar. His death broke her. Supriya Kumari, head of the Brahma Kumari ashram in Rairangpaur, tells me, “She was completely shattered. She wasn’t having any life within her to even talk.”
In one of the talks on Brahma Kumari’s television programme, Murmu herself narrated this event, “The tsunami came into my life in 2009. It was a huge jolt to me. I couldn’t hear anything for a few days. I slipped into depression. Log kehte the ye to mar jaegi (People thought I will not survive). But, no, I wanted to live.”
After two months, she called Kumari in the ashram, completed a course and learnt Sahaj Rajyog. She recovered by changing her life. Since then, she gets up every day around 3.30 am and retires to bed by 9.30 pm. She does yoga and meditation unfailingly and is punctual as well. The spiritual bent of life not only survived her but stabilised her too.
But tragedy befell Murmu again when her younger son, Shipun, died in a road accident. When his body was brought home, she was broken completely, once again.
Rajesh Sharma, a local journalist who was present at her home, says, “She was crying uncontrollably. She broke down before her son’s body. She raised her hands to the sky, asking, ‘God, what more do you want from me? What is left now?’” The catastrophe came in droves.
In an indescribable series of events, her mother and a younger brother died within a month. And a year later, due to deep depression, her husband, Shyam Charan Murmu, died as well.
At that point, Droupadi Murmu told a TV anchor with pain in her voice: “When my second son died, the jolt was a little less than before because I was doing meditation. My husband wasn’t as strong as me, so he couldn’t survive.” She insisted on her only daughter, Itishree, to marry and lead a normal life. After the deaths of five family members, she turned to spirituality and vegetarianism. When she was the governor of Jharkhand (2015-2021), she made the kitchen completely vegetarian. She is likely to bring many fundamental changes in the running of the government in the Rashtrapati Bhavan if she becomes the President.
Murmu has donated her family’s land in Pahadpur for public causes. She runs the SLS residential school in memory of her husband and two sons. At the exact location, she has made samadhis in their memory. It’s a heart-wrenching sight.
At the same time when you see tribal girls and boys getting free education and decent surroundings around samadhis, you can visualise carving out a beautiful future out of a deathly past.
Take a bow Droupadi Murmu, to be the President of India!
Sheela Bhatt is a Delhi-based senior journalist. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)