The ruling alliance chose Draupadi Murmu, a adivasi woman, as a candidate in the next presidential election. Only the second adivasi to be nominated for the bid, Murmu will become the first woman from a Scheduled Tribe to serve as India’s head of state if she wins. It is a historic moment in the country’s 75 years of independence. It is possible that Murmu’s presidency, if it wins the elections, will be a beacon of hope for the most marginalized communities in this country. So far, so good. Progressive voices on social media, however, remain skeptical that Murmu’s rise will bring substantial change to the lives of ordinary people. adivasis, which have been exploited under all regimes, including the current one. They repeat the long-held notion that the president is merely a ceremonial leader who rarely plays a role in governance outside of acting as a “buffer” for the government in power at the time. Moreover, former presidents from marginalized and minority backgrounds have rarely voiced the concerns of other members of their communities.
The outgoing president, for example, is a Dalit. Appointed by this same ruling alliance, Ram Nath Kovind is only the second Dalit president of this republic. But his silence on key Dalit issues is why some suggest he was chosen in the first place. Indeed, an analysis of the issues he raised in parliament during his two terms as a Rajya Sabha MP shows that he never directly raised the issue of atrocities against the Dalits. The situation on the ground belies his silence – during the period 2018-2020, reports show that the country saw 1.3 Lakh cases of crimes against Dalits recorded in police stations across India. A large proportion of these cases (more than 36,000) have occurred in Uttar Pradesh, Kovind’s home state. Cases in his tenure include the Bhima Koregaon violence in 2018, the institutional murder of Dr Payal Tadvi in 2019 and the brutal gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras in 2020.
This silence or inaction is not unique to Indian politicians, but is a larger systemic problem that has parallels elsewhere, including in the United States of America. In 2008, Barack Obama won the election for President of the United States with a campaign that promised hope to voters, especially African Americans. Obama was born to a black father and he said he represented the vision of every non-white American who wanted to imagine themselves leading the country. Yet after two long terms as president, Obama has failed to bring about substantial change in the lives of black people who voted for him. In public appearances, Obama has rarely, if ever, directly addressed the particular issues in African American life and the structural racism that has led to them. His critics within the black community itself point out that he never faced issues such as the racial wealth gap or racial bias among white American police officers.
Researcher Anand Teltumbde’s analysis of a particular incident can help us understand the limits of face value representative politics. In his book, The persistence of caste, Teltumbde provides an account and analysis of the Khairlanji massacre. In 2006, four members of a Dalit family were raped, murdered and mutilated by the entire non-Dalit population of Khairlanji village in Maharashtra. In the aftermath of the incident, state institutions worked actively to overturn justice and the media remained silent on the massacre itself. Teltumbde points out that on several occasions after the brutal massacre, the state actors responsible for suppressing the facts and conducting a botched investigation were themselves Dalits. These included the medical examiner who botched the process, a key police officer in the investigation and politicians trying to assuage protesters’ anger.
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The misconception that representation in politics is inherently egalitarian ignores the fact that the system still consists primarily of their oppressors. A few individuals produce far less power than a system stacked against them — once they are part of it, it becomes their job to maintain the same system of oppressors. Moreover, while protesting against the system can sometimes seem like a bold statement, participants in the system benefit much more personally when they maintain and expand it.
In his famous speech caste annihilation, Dr Ambedkar quotes Albert Venn Dicey, a British Whig jurist and constitutionalist, to indicate how reforming a system while participating in it can never be truly emancipatory. Dicey, speaking about the limitation of the legislative supremacy of the parliament, had said “People sometimes ask the idle question, why does the pope not introduce such and such a reform? The real answer is that a revolutionary is not the kind of man who becomes pope, and the man who becomes pope has no desire to be a revolutionary. The system can therefore only be forced to incorporate structural changes demanded from outside. The representation of face value within can never erode its hold on the oppressed.
Does this mean that representative politics makes no sense? Not necessarily. In his book on Khairlanji, Teltumbde notes how the absence of Dalits in leadership roles in the national media led to the incident being overlooked despite the gruesome nature of the episode. In 2020, however, Dalit-led media organizations were among the first to reach out to Hathras and step up its coverage to make the crime a national issue. These organizations, and media organizations founded and run by Muslims to focus specifically on their persecution, were formed because they felt there was an absence in the mainstream media, sometimes even in seemingly progressive media organizations. , to focus on their issues, stemming from their severe underrepresentation in mainstream media.
There is a perception, often shared in progressive political circles, that identity politics can erode liberal democracies and affect genuine progressive economic development. But, the refusal to share space with a marginalized community is also the refusal to recognize their existence. The fact that there have been only two ST presidential candidates (one of whom lost) in India’s more than seven decades as a republic speaks volumes about our recognition of the original inhabitants of this land.
Humans, especially when pushed to the margins, attach deep meaning to symbols and signs. To the persecuted forever adivasis, confined to the darkest corners of India’s industrial and economic development, Draupadi Murmu’s presidency may signify their long-awaited inclusion in his vision 75 years after independence. It remains to be seen whether Murmu is elected, whether she will give meaning to this hope or whether, like her predecessors, she will honor him with her silence.