Elevating Draupadi Murmu as NDA’S presidential candidate is a significant step in Narendra Modi’s project of civilisational repair that is bringing the marginalised into the social mainstream
NDA presidential candidate Draupadi Murmu, accompanied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and BJP President JP Nadda in Parliament on June 24, 2022 (Photo: ANI)
ADIVASIS WERE NEVER Hindus and they never will be,” Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren had declared at a conference last year. The tribal community, Soren had said in the thick of demands raised by some in India that they be allowed to follow their own code distinct from that of Hinduism, has “always been nature worshipers and that is the reason why they are counted as indigenous people.” The chief minister’s statement was just another instance of a pushback against efforts by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to assimilate tribal communities into a larger Hindu tapestry. On the ground, RSS workers have for decades worked through organisations like the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram to counter the influence of Christian missionaries in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In the states of the Northeast, too, BJP has managed to carve out a key space for itself despite a practically invisible presence for years even as conversions and evangelism have been near constant faultlines.
Draupadi Murmu, hailing from the Santhal tribals of Odisha, was governor of Soren’s Jharkhand. Both Odisha and Jharkhand are tribal-rich states and Murmu is today the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) presidential candidate in an election due next month. Far from being just a token move, as alleged by BJP’s trenchant critics, Murmu’s candidature is, for NDA and RSS, an intrinsic part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s larger dharmic project—a considered strategy to exponentially increase the outreach of an empathetic, inclusive Hinduism among the tribal population of not just Jharkhand but pan-India. This plan to push the envelope of Hinduism to its optimum among marginalised groups, and to put them on an equal footing with mainstream Indian society, is no mean objective. It has powerful political, and even more significant social and religious, connotations that aim to demolish a discriminatory tribal versus non-tribal binary constructed first by colonial rulers and later by Indian politicians over the last 150 years. The objective is to put an end to the extremely fragmented identity politics normalised and legitimised by the Nehruvian state, aided by ideologically motivated scholarship that sought to enhance divisions in Hindu society.
The choice of Murmu as NDA’s presidential candidate was, against this backdrop, aimed at consistently sending positive signals to tribals and smaller communities that BJP cares for them and considers them part of the mainstream. This, in fact, is a theme that runs through the prime minister’s approach to issues like development in the Northeast where there are several tribal, community and religious divides. Lack of development is viewed as a key factor that leads to alienation and separatism, and allows malicious elements to play mischief and generate anti-India sentiments. Therefore, the thought behind prioritising the development push is to bring about real connectivity and integration with the rest of India. Indian leaders erred in not demanding a wider corridor connecting West Bengal to the Northeast, given how critical it was. Now, there is no alternative but to build roads and airports to bridge a gap that is physical and emotional. The mainstreaming of tribals by promoting development and taking care to not alienate people along sectarian lines has successfully created a empathetic foothold for BJP and the Sangh, delivering more results than in the past.
According to Census 2011, 8.6 per cent of all Indians, about 10.42 crore numerically, are notified as Scheduled Tribes (STs) and they form 11.3 per cent of the total rural population. Among tribals, Bhils are the most populous, with a population of 4,618,068, that is, about 37.7 per cent of this population. Bhils are found in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and even Tripura. Gonds, Santhals, Oraons, Minas, Bodos and Mundas are other large tribes. Of the 550 tribes, the Andamanese are the smallest. Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunchal Pradesh are states and Union territories with the highest proportion of STs as part of their population. Uttar Pradesh (UP), Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Kerala and Uttarakhand have the smallest ST populations while Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi and Puducherry have no tribal populations.
Fundamentally, the outreach to tribals is part of the Sangh thinking that marginalised and indigenous communities are part of the greater Hindu civilisational fold. It also reflects the view that ethnic categorisations like indigenous or linguistic definitions of dialects are intended to promote separateness rather than acknowledge diversity. Modi has often articulated his thoughts on tribal welfare in a manner that seeks to strike a balance between distinct traditions and a larger identity. This means that while their individuality is respected, they are within the larger Hindu socio-cultural paradigm. This is in direct contrast to the narrative of leftist scholars who were nurtured by the Nehruvian state and who pit these communities against the so-called order within Hinduism. Building narratives—such as dialects are distinct languages—was motivated by a desire to stoke differences within the Hindu community, critics of the Nehruvian order have argued.
Carrying forward the interpretations of British scholars and reinforcing them, state-sponsored scholar-advocates insisted that tribal gods and local deities by the thousands had been assimilated into the larger Hindu tapestry aggressively. The most famous example given is that of Gautama Buddha being an avatar of Lord Vishnu in the Hindu pantheon to counteract the significant conversion of many Dalits to Buddhism, following the footsteps of BR Ambedkar. In 2018, Modi referred to the BHIM App launched by his government as proof that no establishment prior to his had given Dalits their real due. Interestingly, that name has a recall value with most for its association with the strongest Pandava, Bhim, from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, although the “Jai Bhim!’ cry is used commonly as a rallying slogan by Dalits across India.
BJP’s project to assimilate a significant section of Dalits, once a strong vote bank for Congress across India, into the Hindutva fold and to co-opt them into its support base, has itself met with extraordinary success. Before 2014, the party won approximately 12 per cent of votes among Dalits. In the 2014 elections, however, it shot past Congress in winning 24 per cent of Dalit votes. This proportion went up to 33 per cent in 2019 according to Lokniti-CSDS data. In West Bengal, where Matuas form 80 per cent of the Namasudras, Bengal’s second largest Scheduled Caste (SC), BJP under Modi was able to successfully undercut Trinamool Congress’ hold in the General Election. BJP also won the support of the Rajbanshis, another big SC group, in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri. In states where the Ambedkarite anti-caste movement is strong, such as UP, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, BJP’s strategies have vastly outweighed those of the former. BJP and the Sangh, in fact, have addressed sections of the 220 million-strong SCs separately through strategic interfaces, such as among the Valmikis, the poorest among SCs. Overall, of the 84 reserved constituencies, SCs make up one-third or more of the population only in 13, according to an analysis by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Of the 10 seats with the highest concentration of SC voters, BJP held six, Congress two and other parties two.
Designing a long-term and inclusive plot involving the Sanatani cause and communities sidelined for so long as well as executing it has meant that the Sangh and BJP can look at long-term cultural and social dividends well beyond the more immediate political and electoral gains. In the case of Draupadi Murmu, a tribal and a woman, this means—at least for the here and now—that the BJP-led NDA can count on the support of the ruling party (the Biju Janata Dal or BJD) in her home state, even while putting the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in a dilemma in Jharkhand and making it difficult for the Janata Dal-United, or JD(U), to oppose her candidature in Bihar. In the last state, the clear message was that there are no automatic entitlements within BJP. Modi does not believe in conceding anything to anyone apart from what is actually due to them.
Two years before the mutiny of 1857 against the British, the Santhals of present-day Jharkhand (in Bengal Presidency then) had rebelled against the British East India Company. The rebellion was against the Company’s unfair revenue system, its usury practices, and the zamindari system. The Santhals were forced to resettle in the Damin-i-koh region, their lands cultivated with cash crops while they found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of high-interest loans.
The Santhals were forest-dependent tribes. Lured by promises of land and economic gains, they moved to Cuttack, Manbhum, Hazaribagh and Midnapore. But when they failed to repay their debts, their lands were grabbed. On June 20, 1855, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu mobilised some 60,000 Santhals and, declaring a revolt against the British and the zaminders, formed a parallel government. Taking up arms, the Santhals even executed many zaminders, money lenders and their helpers. Initially caught unawares, the British tried to crush the revolt with a small clutch of troops who failed miserably. Soon after, though, the British, in collusion with local zamindars and the Nawab of Murshidabad, inflicted terrible casualties on the Santhal braves, even announcing a bounty of 10,000 rupees on the Murmu brothers. Between July 1855 and January 1856, the forces of the establishment clashed with Santhal warriors from Kahalgaon to Raghunathpur to Munkatora. Records show that over 15,000 primitively armed Santhals were killed ruthlessly and their homes demolished with elephants supplied by the nawab.
A British army officer, Major Jervis, is quoted in the records on the ‘victory’ of the Company and its colluders against the primitive Santhal tribes: “It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves to be shot down. Their arrows often killed our men, and so we had to fire on them as long as they stood. When their drum ceased, they would move off a quarter of a mile; then their drums beat again, and they calmly stood till we came up and poured a few volleys into them. There was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself.”
According to Census 2011, 8.6 per cent of all Indians, about 10.42 crore people, are notified as Scheduled Tribes and they form 11.3 per cent of the total rural population. Among tribals, Bhils are the most populous. Gonds, Santhals, Oraons, Minas, Bodos and Mundas are other large tribes
Culturally, Santhals followed the larger dharma and the epics have ample illustrations of tribals, showing empathy and respect for their way of life. The story of Shabari, a hunter’s daughter who lived until old age as an outcast disciple of Rishi Matang, waiting only for Lord Rama to visit her, even tasting every fruit offered to him by eating some herself with love and devotion, is one such. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna is depicted as earning his knowledge of weapons through Shiva who appears to him in the avatar of a tribal chieftain. Even the story of Eklavya, the son of a poor hunter who cut off his thumb in an instant as gurudakshina to Dronacharya—the latter deceiving his best archery student in order to advantage Arjuna—is told with sympathy in the Mahabharata. This, even when Lord Krishna kills him to establish dharma. The epic gives Eklavya his full due for devotion and selflessness, respect and admiration, for all time, in the telling of his tale.
Both Lord Rama and the Pandavas were from royal families. Yet, these patent renditions of inclusivity in Hinduism’s greatest epics received little or no attention from scholars of the West and from students of Indian history and culture. Scholars and historians of Nehruvian India, later on, depicted a consistent landscape of entitlement, intrinsic casteism and injustice embedded in Hinduism. They built on and accentuated such interpretations in independent India, completely ignoring the fact that marginalising, humiliating and disenfranchising tribal communities stemmed from the colonial powers and not from the Sanatan Dharma. In more recent years, left-liberal opponents of BJP have sought to present the party as an ‘upholder’ of this alleged upper-caste prejudice and this is why Modi’s decision to make Draupadi Murmu the presidential nominee discomfits them. It overwhelmingly goes against the grain of their political formulation used to convince tribals of BJP’s bias. Of course, Murmu’s candidature is also a means to tell Hindu audiences that tribal empowerment is not just lip-service.
The sorriest fact of all is that when Hindus finally became their own rulers again, after centuries of Mughal and British rule, the Nehruvian-socialist state promoted an interpretation of the subcontinent’s history and culture through the prism of the erstwhile British rulers. Instead of correcting the exploitative and discriminatory socio-cultural norms and the historical imbalance and injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on tribal communities, the government furthered the worldview of an upper-caste dominance in Hinduism that thrived on the abuse of indigenous peoples. For decades, motivated chroniclers continued to represent both Hinduism and its defenders in modern India, the Sangh, as aggressive advocates of “creeping acquisitions” of outliers and outsiders, a strategy espoused in earlier times by Islam and Christianity, according to them. However, in more recent times, they have begun to describe BJP under Modi as espousing “hostile takeovers” as part of its socio-cultural and electoral strategy. Throughout, however, the sins of colonialism and Nehruvian India in excluding, demeaning and ostracising marginalised communities, including Dalits and tribals, were laid firmly at the door of Hinduism by these scholars.
BJP can look at long-term cultural and social dividends well beyond the more immediate political and electoral gains. In the case of Draupadi Murmu, a tribal and a woman, this means NDA can count on the support of BJD in her home state, even while putting JMM in a dilemma in Jharkhand and making it difficult for JD(U) to oppose her candidature in Bihar
NDA’s decision to elevate Draupadi Murmu as its presidential candidate, against this backdrop, needs to be viewed in the context of the civilisational repair of ancient Hinduism and a new India making a corrective statement that is balanced and inclusive of various communities. It posits a united Bharat, as opposed to the one of fragmented identity politics birthed and nurtured for decades after Independence, thus dividing and diminishing the nation. It is a statement whose primary objective is to unite India as a civilisational entity.