Few would have heard of the 64-year-old Droupadi Murmu before the BJP announced her name as the NDA’s nominee for president of India. But few have been able to ignore the symbolism of her candidature.
When she is elected on July 18, she will become India’s first tribal (and second woman) president. It’s a done deal. The NDA alliance headed by the BJP has 49% of the vote. In addition, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress have already pledged support. Others are likely to follow the lure of the powerful optics of what her election will mean.
There’s more than a good chance that it’s identity politics more than a desire to emancipate tribal women that has led to her nomination, but in a post that is largely ceremonial, symbolism counts and “her personal journey and what it means for an Adivasi woman cannot be diminished,” says Nikita Sonavane, lawyer and co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project that works with marginalised communities.
The data paints a bleak picture
Available data on the 705 tribes recognised by the government makes for depressing reading.
Located primarily in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and the North-east states, 60% of India’s 104 million tribals live in predominantly hilly or forested areas, according to an expert committee on tribal health set up in 2013.
Almost 40% of the 2.13 crore people displaced between 1951 and 1990 due to dams, mines and industry were tribals who continue “to suffer from lack of infrastructure development facilities and services,” found the committee.
Literacy rates among tribals did indeed improve from 47.1% in 2001 to 59% in 2011, but it remains well below the national average of 73%. For ST women, literacy rates in 2011 were just 49.4%.
In many critical parameters, scheduled tribes (ST) are worse off than scheduled castes (SC). For instance, over 45% ST children are underweight; 39.1% for SC and 35.8% for all groups, according to the National Family Health Survey – 4. The same survey found 59.9% ST women to be anaemic (55.9% for SC and 53.1% for all other groups).
The rise of Droupadi Murmu
The Murmus are Santhals, like Hemant Soren, the current chief minister of Jharkhand where Droupadi Murmu was governor until 2021.
Born in Mayurbhanj district, Odisha, she graduated from Rama Devi Women’s College in Bhubhaneshwar, Odisha, and began her career with a teaching job. In 1997, she contested the civic election and was elected councillor.
In a state where the chief minister Naveen Patnaik spearheaded the greater political empowerment of women by earmarking 33% of all Parliamentary seats for them in the 2019, Murmu’s political rise had already begun nearly two decades earlier when she was elected twice to the state assembly from Rairangpur on a BJP ticket. During the BJD-BJP coalition in 2000 she served as a minister. Bureaucrats from that time remember her as low-key, efficient and under-stated.
By the time she was appointed governor to Jharkhand in 2015, she had made the space for other tribal women. As a result of Chief Minister Patnaik’s 2019 quota, five of seven women who contested won. Amongst them was 25-year-old Chandrani Murmu, a BTech graduate and the youngest woman MP to be elected that year.
The dream of possibility
As president, Droupadi Murmu’s role will be largely ceremonial—unless faced with a Constitutional crisis.
Her candidature might have an element of tokenistic identity politics but it doesn’t take away from the fact that ‘it is valuable because it is unprecedented’, says Sonavane.
Nobody expects to see the overnight emancipation of tribal women, or even the dramatic improvement of their dismal health and education status, but her presidency will begin on a note of possibility. And that is cause for hope.
An American horror story
When we think of the route of progress, most of us assume it’s a straight road forward. If, like me, that’s how you view progress, then we’ve just been proved wrong as a rollback of 50 years of abortion rights in the US is reversed by that country’s highest court.
The judgment is a tragedy for American women, but affects women everywhere. The UN’s sustainable development goals, including those on gender equality, apply universally. Not one girl left behind. Anywhere.
We live also in a globalised world which has seen a universal articulation of women’s rights as human rights. When the Taliban bans girls from studying, we mourn everywhere. When China cracks down on feminist activism, we rage everywhere. And when women in the United States, which projects itself as a beacon of democracy and freedom, lose control over their bodies, we fear and wonder at how easy it is to lose a hard-won right. And we ask: are we next?
It’s a shock that we all saw coming when Politico published a leaked US Supreme Court opinion by conservative judge Samuel Altio that said it was wrong to grant constitutional protection to abortion rights.
Well, the conservatives have won the day.
What does this mean?
At least 25 states will severely restrict, if not outright ban abortion, regardless of the reason for seeking it (rape, incest, an ectopic pregnancy that puts the mother at risk, severe foetal abnormalities). In three states, the ban has already kicked in; in three others the ban goes into effect 30 days after the ruling.
Conservative judge Clarence Thomas who voted to overturn Roe has called for reassessing rights to same sex marriage and contraception.
In New York Times, Linda Greenhouse writes a requiem for the Supreme Court.
Companies including The Walt Disney Co have pledged to cover employee travel expenses to get an abortion in a state that allows it. But first you’re going to have to tell your boss that you’re pregnant and you want an abortion. Bye bye privacy.
We’re not going back to the time before Roe. We’re going somewhere worse, writes Jia Tolentino in New Yorker.
How 50 years of the constitutional right to abortion ended. New York Times has the blow-by-blow.
Restricting access to abortion does not prevent people from seeking it. It simply makes it more deadly. Read UNFPA’s statement.
Margaret Atwood wrote a dystopian novel of a theocratic dictatorship. Women had almost no rights in her fictional Gilead. The Supreme Court decision is ‘making it real’ she wrote in The Atlantic in May.
WE HEAR YOU
“Consent of family or community or clan is not necessary once two adult individuals agree to enter into wedlock.”
Justice M.A. Chowdhary of the Jammu and Kashmir high court on a plea filed by a couple who had got married against the wishes of their families and sought court protection from harm.
LIKE A BOSS
In the photograph, the 10-year-old holds up a handmade poster. “Behind the beauty of Taj Mahal is plastic pollution,” it reads. Licypriya Kangujam is standing before one of the world’s most iconic sites, surrounded by a sea of plastic. She’s no jane-come-lately. In 2019, she addressed world leaders at the United Nations Climate conference and on Twitter has over 146,000 followers (her mom is the admin). That didn’t stop the Samajwadi Party’s digital media coordinator Manish Agrawal–surely he’s heard of Google–from calling her a ‘foreign tourist’, putting both ignorance and racism on public display.
“Hello sir, I’m a proud Indian,” Kangujam, who comes from Manipur, clarified. But the happier ending came a day later when the Agra municipal corporation ordered a clean-up. “Ban single-use plastic completely in & around all heritage sites,” she tweeted.
STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
Death for rape-murder of a child
Ruling that a 37-year-old man from Rajasthan who raped and killed a physically and mentally challenged seven-and-a-half year old girl in 2013 had “no probability of reformation” and remained a “danger to society”, a three-judge Supreme Court bench has upheld the death sentence passed on him by the high court.
Be careful the next time you kiss your wife in public
Police in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya district have filed a case against unknown people for beating up a man who kissed his wife while taking a dip in the river Saryu. The report was filed after an undated video of the incident surfaced on social media. The case has been filed suo motu by the police as the couple has not made an official complaint.
It’s still Pride Month and here’s a wrap from around the world:
Fina, the swimming world’s governing body has voted to bar transgender women from elite female competitions if they have experienced any part of male puberty.
A Japanese court dealt a setback to LGBTQ+ rights by ruling that a ban on same-sex marriage does not go against the country’s Constitution.
And, the 18-year-old daughter Elon Musk, was granted the legal right to have her name changed to Vivian Jenna Wilson in accordance with her new gender. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez introduced her 14-year-old child Emme Muniz with gender neutral pronouns.