Droupadi Murmu after being elected president, July 21, 2022 (Photo: AFP)
IN THE HEAVILY PROTOCOL-DRIVEN WONDERLAND OF BUGGIES AND aides-de-camp and official dinners and investiture ceremonies, the ‘mahamahim’ walks gently in her sari, ordinary glasses, and socks-clad sandals. In civics textbooks, she is the supreme commander of India’s armed forces, though even kids know that this remains symbolic in the absence of executive powers. Presidents have come and gone. Even a woman president has passed through the corridors of what was once the British Viceroy’s residence in colonial India. So, there is no novelty in the post that India’s current President Droupadi Murmu holds currently, except that she is the first from the tribal community—a people who remain primarily underrepresented and on the margins of India’s success story.
She speaks softly. One could say that Murmu murmurs. But sometimes behind that subtleness, she manages to pass a message that cannot be ignored. It is a feat at a time when the Prime Minister’s Office is stronger than ever. This eclipsing gets reflected sometimes through minor protocol breaches, like the one recently during the Egyptian president’s reception at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Murmu stood behind Prime Minister Modi till the protocol pointed it out. But those who know her know that her brief to herself has always gone beyond the protocol.
When she speaks, Murmu tries to speak her mind as much as her office allows it. And it becomes clear that she draws from her own life experience as someone who came from a humble background in Odisha. Some of the things she has pointed out in her speeches have the power to alter how the nation views its most hallowed institutions.
The day is November 26, 2022, a few months after she assumed office. Murmu arrives to speak at the valedictory session of the National Law Day celebrations organised by the Supreme Court. She sits on the dais, flanked by the chief justice of India and the law minister. The speech is set. It will roughly last nine minutes. All is going according to the written text. She speaks about how she came from a small village where villagers considered three individuals as gods: teachers, doctors, and lawyers. She reminisces about how as an elected representative, she went to prisons for the first time to see what was happening. “I wanted to go see who they are, how they live… what they have done,” she says. She reminds her audience how those inside these prisons did not know things like the fundamental rights or the Preamble. And how the poor are languishing in jails for things as innocuous as slapping someone. And how sometimes their families could not do anything to fight their case because that would mean selling off every little possession they have. As her staff looks on, she makes a digression towards the end. Their heartbeat rises. But, as they will know a few minutes later, Murmu has pointed out what perhaps requires intervention at the highest level in the judiciary. Here, she turns into Plato’s philosopher king.
What kind of development is this, she asks, when we say that prisons are overcrowded and that we need more jails? Do something, she urges the judiciary. “What I am leaving unsaid, understand that thing,” she tells them.
It was as if Murmu was mirroring the thoughts of the philosopher Simone Weil who cautioned about the “obfuscating potential” of language. Emphasising listening to someone afflicted, Weil portrays the example of a vagrant standing in a court of law. “Even if, through his stammering, he should utter a cry to pierce the soul, neither the magistrate nor the public will hear it,” she writes in Human Personality.
Perhaps Murmu did not have someone like her in mind when she spoke, but her speech even reached Gurdeep Singh Khaira in Amritsar when an Indian Express reporter tracing the life of a Sikh radical reached out to him. Khaira, a convict in two bomb blasts in the 1990s, is currently out on parole. When asked about the radical, Khaira chose instead to dwell on Murmu’s speech.
Three days later, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul directed jails across India to submit the details of prisoners languishing in jails for petty crimes, such as the ones Murmu referred to. This could lead to a national scheme, enabling the release of such undertrials.
There is no novelty in the post that India’s current President Droupadi Murmu holds currently, except that she is the first from the tribal community. She speaks softly. But sometimes behind that subtleness, she manages to pass a message that cannot be ignored
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A month later, Murmu spoke to a batch of probationers from the Indian Police Service. In her jerky Hindi, she told them something that needs to be told now more than ever. She said when she was born, India was a new nation but the memories of colonialism were fresh in people’s minds. As the visible tool of that colonialism, the police were much feared; so much so that parents would, to make their children sleep, scare them that the police would take them away. She used the term, “Police pakad ke le jayega,” which no one is a stranger to in the Hindi-speaking parts. In remote areas, this “mentality (impression)”, she told them, still persists. She asked the officers to create an environment in police posts where even an illiterate poor man living in a remote corner could get sympathetic support.
Murmu herself belongs to the Santhal community, one of the largest tribes in India. A journalist in Odisha who has known Murmu for over four decades recalled how she studied at a village school and then broke her way through limited means to study further. When she was in school, her father took her to a nearby town where a minister in the Odisha government was visiting. The journalist told the BBC that she ran up on stage, waving her school certificate, telling the minister that she wanted to study in the state capital Bhubaneswar. The minister was impressed with her grit and got it arranged. Later, she worked as a clerk in the government. Afterward, she became an MLA and later, the governor of Jharkhand. She used opportunities to understand what the poor faced throughout their lives.
On February 26, Murmu spoke at Delhi University’s 99th convocation ceremony. Taking out a leaf from her own life, she emphasised creating a conducive environment for first-generation learners. “There may be many students among you with very few from their family or village coming up to the university level. Sometimes, conditions are created such that they begin to have an inferiority complex,” she said, adding that it was the responsibility of teachers and other students to encourage such students. Earlier, in Gurugram, during a spiritual organisation’s event, Murmu pointed out that only 7 per cent of women were in executive positions and that it was because they had upon them the burden of the family as well. “We have to ask ourselves this question that is taking care of kids and raising a family only the responsibility of a woman?” she said.
In December, while speaking at the silver jubilee of a technical institute for women in Hyderabad, Murmu asked students to not be satisfied with their own success and happiness. “You should use your talent and technological capabilities for the larger good. Benefits of technology should reach the remotest areas and the poorest of the poor,” she told them.
It seems that some leaders in Congress are ignorant of Murmu’s personal history when they made adverse comments about her, as alleged by CR Kesavan, the statesman Rajagopalachari’s great-grandson, who recently resigned from the party. During an interview, Kesavan claimed that a senior Congress leader, after Murmu was nominated, said that she represented an “evil philosophy”, while another person said that no country should get a president like her. That is shocking for a party whose scion once went to the Niyamgiri Adivasis and told them that he was their ambassador in Delhi.
As Murmu continues to drop subtle truth bombs, drawing attention to the plight of the poor, one cannot help but think that perhaps this is the “evil philosophy” India needs.