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Church, activists hail India’s first tribal woman president

Veteran Santal politician Droupadi Murmu will be sworn in as head of state on July 25
Tribal leader Ratan Tirkey, right, greets Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu at a function in state capital Ranchi in 2019

Tribal leader Ratan Tirkey, right, greets Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu at a function in state capital Ranchi in 2019.  (Photo supplied)

Published: July 22, 2022 05:52 AM GMT

Church leaders and tribal activists hailed the election of Droupadi Murmu as the 15th president of India and the first tribal woman to become head of state on July 21.

Murmu, the ruling National Democratic Alliance candidate, was pitted against the opposition's Yashwant Sinha in the contest for the top constitutional post.

President Ram Nath Kovind's term ends on July 24 and his successor will be sworn in on July 25.

“It is a proud moment for all the tribal communities in India and as she is a tribal she can relate to the problems and difficulties faced by tribal communities, hence people expect she may address them accordingly,” Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Tribal Affairs, told UCA News.

“The job of President Murmu will be very challenging with the present scenario which is witnessing communal unrest where tribals and minorities are victims, so she has to see that laws enacted to uplift the life of tribals are implemented in letter and spirit,” the Odisha tribal priest said.

"She has to be more authoritative as president when faced with political pressure from the ruling BJP"

“Judging by her time as governor, she has to be more authoritative as president when faced with political pressure from the ruling BJP,” said Ratan Tirkey, former member of the tribal advisory committee of Jharkhand who worked with Murmu when she was governor of the state.

“When she was governor of Jharkhand she could do very little to ensure the proper implementation of self-governance rights granted to tribal communities under the Fifth Schedule and the Panchayats [Extension to Scheduled Areas] Act in her state.”

He also recalled meeting her and expressing strong tribal resentment at the BJP government’s attempts to amend two laws that safeguarded tribal communities’ land rights — the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act.

The amendments sought to give tribal people the right to let the government make commercial use of their land. However, the law allowed land transactions only between tribal and tribal.

“We were happy that she finally relented and returned the [amendment] bills to the then government,” Tirkey said.

Hailing from the Santal community, Murmu had a tough childhood in one of the most remote and underdeveloped districts in the country.

Overcoming all odds, she earned a bachelor's degree from Ramadevi Women's College in Bhubaneswar and served as a junior assistant in the irrigation and power department in the Odisha government.

Later, she served as an honorary assistant teacher in the Shri Aurobindo Integral Education Centre in Rairangpur.

Murmu began her political career as a councilor in Rairangpur Nagar Panchayat in 1997 and rose through the ranks to become a minister in the Odisha government in 2000 and later the governor of Jharkhand, the first woman to hold the position.

She was also a two-term former member of the legislative assembly from Rairangpur. Murmu held on to her assembly seat in 2009 when the Biju Janata Dal severed ties with the BJP weeks ahead of the state election.

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