Droupadi Murmu, India's first tribal woman president

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Droupadi Murmu, India's first tribal woman presidentNew Delhi (AsiaNews) – Droupadi Murmu is India’s 15th president. The election was held last Monday but the counting was carried out today.

Ms Murmu reached the necessary threshold before all the votes were counted, becoming the first woman from a scheduled tribe (Adivasi) to be elected to India’s highest office. She will take office on 25 July replacing outgoing President Ram Nath Kovint.

The 64-year-old was elected with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, beating by a wide margin her challenger, Yashwant Sinha, who was supported by the opposition.

She will be the second woman president of India. The first one was Pratibha Patil (2007-2012) who was elected with the support of the Congress Party.

Daughter and granddaughter of ethnic Santal village chiefs, Murmu began her career as a teacher. She joined the BJP in 1997, and held municipal office. In 2015 she was appointed governor of Jharkhand, the first Adivasi woman to occupy this post, serving until the end of her term.

The BJP portrays her as a woman from a humble background who spent her life dedicated to the community. Her personal life has been marred by tragedies, losing her husband and two children. But will the election of an Adivasi woman as president be a turning point for India?

For Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in Odisha, President Murmu’s home state, “Tribal communities and all Indians can feel proud of the fact that a tribal woman has reached the highest constitutional office”; however, "tribal people continue to be the most neglected, backward and (also) exploited section of society.”

In fact, “The life of Indigenous people or Adivasi is intertwined with jal (water), jungle and jameen (land),” which are not only “the basis of livelihood but also of our very existence and culture.” Yet “continued large-scale deforestation and displacement due to mega development projects have pushed the already marginalised tribal communities into penury and deprivation.”

Still, “As we approach the 75th year of India's independence, the election of a tribal woman from Odisha brings hope,” Archbishop Barwa said. Hence, “We pray and hope that the honourable president will raise her voice for tribals and uphold constitutional values.”

Fr Vincent Ekka, head of the Department of Tribal Studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, spoke to AsiaNews about the election.

Draupadi Murmu’s election “is seen with mixed feelings of happiness and suspicion,” explained the Jesuit clergyman.

People are “happy because for the first time in India’s history a tribal woman is raised to the highest office in the country, which shows that even marginalised people can rise in life.”

Yet, there is also “suspicion because the practice and ideology of the current (BJP) regime have been a strategy of exclusion and symbolic inclusion,” with the risk that Mrs Murmu’s election will overshadow the fact that most tribal people continue to face, “marginalisation, exclusion, displacement, and deprivation of constitutional rights.”

Hence, “Will Mrs Murmu's election as president of India bring justice and dignity to tribal and other marginalised community is a big question in the mind of most citizens.”

by Nirmala Carvalho