Video Producer: Naman Shah
Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan
Yeh Jo India Hai Na, it is cheering for Droupadi Murmu, our new president. The first tribal Indian to occupy Rashtrapati Bhawan, and only the second woman. A school teacher from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, who worked in the state irrigation department, was then a two-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA, a state minister, and governor of Jharkhand for six years.
Droupadi Murmu is known to be humble, spiritual, and to have a mind of her own. In 2017, as Jharkhand governor, she sent back a bill seeking amendments to two tribal land ownership acts, asking her own BJP CM Raghubar Das to clarify how the bill would help tribals. Her fears were valid, because till date, that bill has not been passed.
But is electing Droupadi Murmu, a tribal, as president, just tokenism? The answer is a no, but also a possible yes.
Electing Murmu – An Act of Tokenism?
No, because it is a powerful message. The swearing in of a tribal woman as India’s president is empowering, it does matter. It would matter to many of India’s tribals, to many Indian women, to working women, to many of India’s marginalised.
For mothers who find out that Droupadi Murmu faced the tragedy of losing her two sons at a young age, and yet motivated herself to contribute to public life, to become India’s 15th President is genuinely inspiring.
But then, consider the news that came even as Murmu was being voted in as President: A special NIA court in Chhattisgarh acquitted 121 adivasis, who had been arrested in 2017 after a deadly Maoist attack in which 25 CRPF soldiers were killed. Arrested from six villages in Sukma district, these 121 tribals spent five years in jail, despite no evidence against them.
They were charged with murder, they were charged under the harsh Arms Act, the Public Safety Act, and the ‘harshest’ Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which allowed the police to imprison them for years without needing to present a single piece of evidence against them.
The court began hearing the case only in August 2021, more than four years after the arrests. A year later while acquitting them all, the court order trashed the police investigation saying that they had failed to prove that any of the accused were present at the place of the attack, they had failed to recover any arms or ammunition from any of the accused, they had failed to prove that even one of the 121 tribals was a Maoist.
So, Yeh Jo India Hai Na, here, even as we cheer for Droupadi Murmu, we must pause and take an honest look at how we treat our fellow tribal citizens. Who were these 121 tribals? News reports mention the names of just three of them – Padam Buska, Hemala Ayatu, and a third Dondi Manglu who died in jail in 2021 after four years of wrongful custody.
The other 118 will remain nameless and faceless to the most of us, despite the injustice they faced.
But Why Were the 121 Tribals Arrested?
You and I should be asking, why did the Chhattisgarh police pick up these 121 tribals? Why were they described as hardcore criminals? Why was the UAPA slapped against them? Was it because it was the only way to keep them in jail? Was it because, it was the best way to hide the fact that the police had no evidence?
Why were cases fabricated against these tribals? Was this a ‘punishment’ for the six villages around the location of the Maoist attack? For how long will tribals be used as scapegoats in the fight against the Maoists? Should the police be allowed to act in this manner?
Are the cops responsible for these wrongful arrests? And will these 121 tribals be compensated for the five years that they were kept in jail? Does anyone care how the families of these 121 tribals survived during these five years?
Yeh Jo India Hai Na, it is home to around 12 million tribals and for their sake, and as Indians, yes, we must proudly celebrate Droupadi Murmu, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that ‘all is well.’