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How Droupadi Murmu Brought Santali Language & Community Into National Spotlight

"She is uncomplicated and honest, that's what touches me the most about her," a BJP leader remarked about Murmu.

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(Excerpted with permission from Kasturi Ray's new book Droupadi Murmu: From Tribal Hinterlands To Raisina Hill, published by Rupa Publications.)

[Droupadi] Murmu felt that a tribe can survive only if it has its language, culture and tradition. She met [Odisha] CM [Naveen] Patnaik at regular intervals in 2003, when she was a Cabinet member and an MLA, to have him accept the request for Santali to be accorded the status of a language so that a proposal could be sent to the Union government.

The Tribal Advisory Council, with tribal members including MLAs, used to be a nodal authority that functioned under the chairmanship of the CM.

It was during her ministerial tenure that the council approved Murmu's request and forwarded it to the home department of the central government.

Retired Chief Justice of India Ranganath Misra was then the chairman of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, also called Ranganath Misra Commission. It was constituted by the Government of India on 29 October 2004 to look into various issues related to the linguistic and religious minorities of India.

He was the one who appreciated the proposal.

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"To gain the status [of a language], the script needed acceptance by the concerned department. Member of the thirteenth and fourteenth Lok Sabha Kharabela Swain from the BJP encouraged me and we decided to meet PM [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee ji. He was happy and immediately gave us assurance to accord it the status of language."
Droupadi Murmu

The Eighth Schedule to the Constitution consists of twenty-two languages: Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Bodo, Santali, Maithili, and Dogri.

Of these, Bodo, Dogri, Maithili, and Santali were added in 2004. At present, there are demands of thirty-eight more languages to be included in the Eighth Schedule.

Murmu fondly remembered how the CM of Odisha appreciated her efforts and thanked her on the floor of the Assembly. She felt gratified and also thanked the CM for sending the proposal at the right time.

Swain said that it was easy for him to get associated with the Ol Chiki movement of the Santalis even though he is a non-Adivasi. He lent support to the movement of getting Santali included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution when the JMM [Jharkhand Mukti Morcha] raised the issue in early 2000, but the movement did not gather momentum until Murmu took up the cause and led the demand for its inclusion.

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He stated:

"When I got to know about Droupadi Murmu raising pitch for the demand, I wanted to be with her in the movement. She is an Odia, an Adivasi, and a Santali. To top it all, she is our sister. I must be with her. So when she called me up one day to say that she wants to take the cause to the PM, I was in Delhi and asked her to reach the capital as soon as possible."

The day Murmu reached the PMO with the state government approval on the script, Swain accompanied her.

"I have this uncanny habit of getting my appointments in moments with the BJP top brass. The moment we reached Vajpayee ji's chamber, we got an entry for the meeting. Vajpayee ji and Murmu ji spoke for about forty-five minutes and discussed the possibility of Ol Chiki being included in the Schedule and the rest is history," he said with a smile.

He remembered that within a few days, the script was included in the Schedule, and Murmu helmed a massive function at Chhau Padia, a field in Rairangpur, to celebrate the victory. Thousands of Adivasis congregated there, and he was invited as a special guest.

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Swain was also made to sit on the dais, even if the others on the stage were Adivasis. "I delivered a speech in Odia and was felicitated on the stage by Murmu, who appreciated my effort to take the issue forward," Swain fondly remembered.

"She is uncomplicated and honest, that's what touches me the most about her," Swain remarked on Murmu as a person.

Santali experts and academics feel that Murmu's Santali identity and her elevation to India's highest constitutional office could bring both her community as well as language to the national spotlight.

Many Santali books have been published since then in the Ol Chiki script. Besides, Santali magazines in Ol Chiki are also being published regularly. The University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced Santali as a subject for the National Eligibility Test in 2013. On 7 December 2019, Sarojini Hembram, a BJD member nominated to the Rajya Sabha, addressed the House in the Santali language and was appreciated by the then Speaker Venkaiah Naidu.

On 29 May 2022, PM [Narendra] Modi, while addressing the eighty ninth episode of Mann Ki Baat, appreciated Shripati Tudu's efforts in preparing a version of the country's Constitution in Ol Chiki for the Santali community.

Tudu is a professor of Santali language at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University and started translating the 235-page document into the Santali script in 2019 with the objective of making it readable for lakhs of tribal people and creating awareness about their rights.

The battle to obtain the status of a language for her mother tongue was only one of the many issues that Murmu took up.

(Kasturi Ray has been a journalist for over 28 years with a large body of work in print, broadcast, and digital media. Currently the Senior News Editor of The New Indian Express, Bhubaneswar, she was the features editor of the media house for 19 years before moving on to the fast-paced and ever-growing digital space. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, she has also written for Firstpost and The Quint.)

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Topics:  odisha   Book excerpt   Orissa 

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