Book excerpt: When Droupadi Murmu delivered her maiden speech
July 25, 2022 will go down as a historic day in the evolution of India as a nation state. It was the day when a person born in independent India was sworn in as the President of the republic for the first time. Eight years before, PM Modi had become the first person born after Independence to take oath as the PM of the country.
The process of transition of the national leadership to the post-Independence generation that began on 24 May 2014 was completed with the swearing-in of Murmu as the President of the country on 25 July 2022. It was perhaps fitting that the completion of the process came at a time when the nation was celebrating ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ to mark seventy-five years of India’s independence.
This, however, was not the only reason for the historical significance of the day. It was also the day when a tribal ascended the highest constitutional position in the country for the first time. The implications of this development can hardly be overstated. The country had already had two Presidents from the Dalit (scheduled caste) community, among the poorest and most oppressed sections of Indian society over the centuries, in K.R. Narayanan and Ram Nath Kovind, Murmu’s immediate predecessor.
Beyond the symbolism
The anointment of a tribal, the other most neglected section of society, as President, thus represented a very important milestone in the evolution of the Indian republic and fulfilled the promise of a truly egalitarian society held out by the Constitution of India. Cynics would, of course, dismiss it as mere symbolism. Pointing to the largely ornamental nature of the post of President in the constitutional scheme of things in India, they would claim that a truer test — and more authentic proof — of the emancipation of the neglected classes would be when a Dalit or a tribal becomes the PM of the country.
But one must remember that Murmu’s rise to the President’s post is just a very important step in the evolution of the Indian republic, not its final destination. Thirty years ago, a tribal at Raisina Hills would perhaps have been unthinkable. But here we are, with a tribal occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan since 2022. For all we know, the country could see a Dalit or a tribal PM a few decades down the line. (In fact, India came pretty close to having a Dalit PM, Jagjivan Ram, in the post-Emergency election in 1977, but it was Morarji Desai who prevailed in the end.)
The first speech
In her first speech after being sworn in as President, Murmu emphasized the significance of her ascension to the post thus. ‘It is a tribute to the power of our democracy that a daughter born in a poor house in a remote tribal area can reach the highest constitutional position in India. That I attained the post of President is not my personal achievement; it is the achievement of every poor person in India. My election is a proof of the fact that the poor in India can have dreams and fulfil them too,’ she said in her address (in Hindi) after being administered the oath of office by Justice N.V. Ramana, the then Chief Justice of India (CJI).
During her speech, President Murmu recalled her personal struggles early in life and how she overcame them to become the first girl from her village to reach college. ‘It is a matter of great satisfaction for me that those who have been deprived of the benefits of development for centuries — the poor, the Dalits, the backward classes and tribals — see in me their reflection,’ she said as she stressed on her humble origins and her rise through the ranks from a municipal councillor to the President of India. She hailed the tribal way of life, which has enabled them to live a sustainable life in perfect harmony with nature for thousands of years. ‘It gives me great satisfaction that India is showing the way to the world when it comes to conservation of the environment,’ she said.
While recalling the contributions of the leaders of India’s freedom struggle like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, she made special mention of the role played by tribal uprisings like the Santhal rebellion, the Paika rebellion, and the Kol and Bhil uprisings in strengthening the Independence movement and paid glowing tributes to Santhal icon ‘Dharti Abba’ Bhagwan Birsa Munda. She also hailed the fortitude with which the people of India fought the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘India not only took care of itself in these difficult situations but also helped the world. In the atmosphere created by the Corona pandemic, today the world is looking at India with a new confidence,’ she said.
Her dignified eighteen-minute speech was punctuated by thunderous applause from the assembled crowd at the Central Hall of Parliament. As she winded up her speech with a quote from Odia saint-poet Bhima Bhoi —‘mo jeebana pachhe narke padithau, jagata uddhara heu [Let my life rot in hell but may the world be saved]’—the clapping reached a crescendo.
While the virtual who’s who of Indian politics — from the outgoing president Ram Nath Kovind, Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu, PM Modi and his Cabinet colleagues to Governors and CMs of various states — top military, civil and judicial officials and heads of diplomatic missions were present at the Central Hall of Parliament for the swearing-in ceremony, what caught the eye of the observers — especially from Odisha — was the pride of place given to Naveen Patnaik, the CM of Odisha, in the seating arrangements.
He was seated in the front row even as other CMs and several Union ministers were given the second row. The special honour reserved for Patnaik was an indication as much of his strong bond with his ‘rakhi sister’ as of the important role he had played in ensuring the victory of the new President.
Among the profusion of VVIPs, however, there was a group of five dozen ordinary people from the President’s home district, Mayurbhanj, specially invited by the President for the occasion. This bunch of sixty consisted of some of the President’s family members, including her younger brother Taranisen and sister-in- law Shukramani, a few of her close friends, six BJP MLAs from the President’s home district and three representatives of the Rairangpur centre of the Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya.
(Courtesy of Penguin Random House)