International Women’s Day

Mrs Droupadi Murmu President of the Republic of India: The exceptional rise of a tribal girl

9 mars 2024, 15:01


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Mrs Droupadi Murmu President of the Republic of India: The exceptional rise of a tribal girl

Official portrait, 2022.

On this March 8, marking the International Women’s Day, the campaign theme is “Inspire Inclusion”. The celebration of the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of Droupadi Murmu befits the campaign theme for 2024. Droupadi Murmu, as Chief for the 56th anniversary of our nation’s Independence and the 32nd year marking the creation of the Republic of Mauritius, defines inclusion in its totality. As the second woman president of the Republic of India, the world’s largest democracy and a fast growing world economic power, Droupadi Murmu symbolizes the best example of inspiration to the world to value women’s inclusion.

Her life journey depicts the phenomenal rise of a tribal girl from an obscure, remote village Baidaposi in Uparbeda in Mayurbhanj, 280km from the capital of Odisha. She assumed office as India’s first tribal president on July 25, 2022. Born in a Santhal tribal family on June 20, 1958, Droupadi was the first girl from her village to venture on her own initiative for secondary education. It is recalled that when she was a five-year-old child, her father took her to the nearby town of Rairangpur in Odisha where a minister of the Odisha Government Shri Kartik Majhi was visiting. At a reception for the minister, the little Droupadi ran on the stage “waving her 5th Standard School Certificate” and told the minister she wanted to go for further studies. Impressed by the little girl’s enthusiasm, the minister ordered his staff to get her admitted in a government school. She completed her secondary education from the Government Girl’s High School. Thereafter she earned her B.A. Honours degree from Rama Devi Women’s University, the first woman to do so from her village. She was a daring girl.

At the very early stage of her life Droupadi showed signs of leadership, initiative, and the immense capacity to bear the burden of life’s vicissitudes and surmount them equally.

Born in a tribal family, she knew in her bones what exclusion meant. But prodded by her Dadi (father’s mother) she forged ahead. Her Dadi who was from Jamshedpur, the steel town of nearby Jharkhand, who having observed the social mobility of girls through education told her, “You are a girl and at that a tribal girl”. Education is your only salvage.

Even her name was frowned upon by people from outside her milieu. In her family tradition when a girl is born, she takes the name of her Dadi and likewise a boy takes the name of his Dada – the paternal grandfather. She was thus given, at birth the name Durgi after her Dadi.

When a schoolteacher from outside came to teach at her school, she ridiculed her: “What kind of a name is this?”. And at home Droupadi was known as “Puti” meaning light. That was changed to “Pati”. Then the teacher, as a way of compromise with the family custom merged the two names of “Durgi” and “Pati” and made it “Droupadi”. Her father had no objection. Even names cause exclusion and prejudices.

Though her family faced poverty yet both her father, Biranchi Narayan Tudu, a farmer, and her grandfather held the posts of village chiefs during the British period. They were tax collectors, and as such held in awe and fear by the rest of the villagers. She was referred to as “Pradhan ki Beti”– the Chieftain’s daughter.

As a child Droupadi was given to mischief as all youngsters. She herself has stated in a recent interview to Smriti Irani, Indian Union Minister for Women and Child Development on Doordarshan/ Prashar Bharati and All India Radio that she liked to steal mangoes and even entered people’s yard on her way back from school to steal guavas. She also liked to frolic about in village ponds. This soft-spoken lady was determined from the very beginning to make a mark in life. At that time, in the Santhal tribal society, she did not dream of becoming President of India, but she did think of getting education and an ordinary job. After her graduation, she got a job as a junior assistant in the department of Irrigation under the Government of Odisha.

She got married to Shyam Charan Murmu, a charming bank employee, in 1980. As a bank officer, Shyam Charan was often transferred. They had three children, a daughter Itishree, and two sons Sipun and Laxman. As a young mother she changed her work and took on a job as a schoolteacher at the Shri Aurrobindo Integral Education Centre to remain close to her children. There she taught Hindi, Odia (language of Odisha, which was known in Mauritius too), Maths and Geography.

Droupadi had a penchant for politics since the beginning, coming from a village chieftain’s family. In 1997 she stood as an independent candidate in the local Panchayat system. Her husband encouraged her, and she became a councillor, and later vice-chairman. At that time all this was being frowned upon by society, but Droupadi had a quiet restless energy and supported by her husband, she forged ahead. As her responsibilities increased, she who had never learnt to ride a bicycle or scooter was offered a Maruti 800 car by her husband. Her political career flourished.

In 2000, she was selected as MLA from the Rairangpur Assembly Constituency as a BJP candidate. She was selected twice as an MLA, but she was never made a minister. However, from 2000 to 2002, she became minister of State of Commerce and Transportation and from 2002 to 2004, minister of State of Fisheries and Animal Resources Development. She had the innate ability to learn on the job. As she has stated herself, she would go late in the evening to the District Collector’s office to learn about revenues. She also contested the Lok Sabha Elections from her Mayurbhanj constituency in 2009. On May 18, 2015, she was selected to be governor of Jharkhand.

It would be interesting to note here that quite a few early indentured immigrants in Mauritius hailed from Chotta Nagpur Tribal area in Jharkhand as well as from Odisha. In fact, the first 36 indentured labourers who signed a contract of labour with Arbuthnot and Company hailed from this region. They came on November 2, 1834, on board the Atlas and were taken to Antoinette Phooliyar Sugar Estate. Therefore, in some way we have a bonding with Droupadi Murmu. As the first woman and first Tribal Governor of Jharkhand, a tribal majority state, she held tenure for six years. As governor, she is remembered for having passed the Land Bill in 2013 prohibiting government from using lands meant for the tribal population.

But tragedy stroke one after the other, to shatter her life. Within six years, she lost her husband, her two sons and a brother. This unsurmountable grief led to a terrible depression. Patiently and lovingly encouraged by the Sisters of the Spiritual University of the Brahma Kumaris, she surmounted her afflictions and became an emblem of stoicism in the face of personal tragedy. She focused on alleviating the abject conditions of the downtrodden

Droupadi Murmu has made news for breaking protocol on several occasions, such as when she visited the Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik at his home or went with a delegation to meet the railway minister to press for expansion of rail services in Mayurbhanj, her home district. As a councillor, she was often seen personally supervising sanitation work in the town, standing in the hot sun, monitoring the cleaning of drains and cleaning of garbage. As president of India too, she has broken protocol by travelling by metro to experience de visu the hardships of commuters including school children, sharing their selfies, stories, and giggles.

Her Excellency President of the Republic of India

In 2022 Prime Minister Narendra Modi telephoned her personally at her village home. She did not pick up the phone, it being often faulty. The call was then directed to the governor and a local trader’s shop. They came running to her to request her to pick up the phone. The Prime Minister wanted to talk to her. She picked up the phone. She was astounded. Narendra Modi was on the other side: he wanted her to be nominated as the National Democratic Alliance Candidate for President of India, for the election in June 2022! Unbelievable, she felt her limbs giving way, according to her interview with Smriti Irani. She was stunned and taken aback. But there was no time to think, to reflect. She had to give the answer immediately. It was YES. At 9 pm that night, the news was broadcast. Her house and compound were invaded. People flocked from nearby Jharkhand. A ninety-year-old man from her village came to see her. They knew that now they would not see her as an ordinary citizen in the village again.

In July 2022, Droupadi Murmu was sworn in as the 15th President of India as the youngest and first one to be born in Independent India and as a tribal as well. A woman of grit, fortitude, and tenacity who dared to take up challenges with the capacity to defy when required, the soft-spoken Droupadi has shown that soft power can empower.