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From Draupadi Pandava to Droupadi Murmu

Without the Mandal struggle, the RSS-BJP, known as the Brahmin-Bania network, would not have chosen her as the presidential candidate. The Congress and the Left, frozen in Brahmanism as they are, have given the RSS-BJP a historical advantage, writes Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Droupadi Murmu, a Santali Tribal woman leader, getting elected as the 15th President of India is a milestone in the history of post-Mandal struggle, particularly for Adivasi emancipation from classical oppression. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will gain enormous mileage with her as president. Without the Mandal struggle, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, known as the Brahmin-Bania network, would not have chosen her as the presidential candidate. The Congress and the Left, frozen in Brahmanism as they are, have given the RSS-BJP a historical advantage.  

By nominating a rich Kayastha leader from Jharkhand, not long ago a part of Bihar, the home state of Rajendra Prasad (also a Kayastha), who served two terms as the first president of independent India, the opposition parties led by the Congress committed a serious blunder. It appears that the Congress has not yet understood the changing political environment. Ever since prime-minister-to-be Narendra Modi declared that he was an Other Backward Class (OBC), caste calculations in India changed. And once he became prime minister, a Dalit, Ram Nath Kovind, was made president and a Shudra (Kamma), Venkaiah Naidu, was made vice-president. During the entire Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rule, the top ruling clique was mainly drawn from the Dwija castes (Brahmin, Bania, Kayashta, Khatri and Kshatriya) and also from Muslim feudal elite. Even the Pasmanda Muslims did not get any prominent role. Among Muslims, the BJP is luring Shias and Pasmandas. While the Left, by not studying the Indian caste system and adopting a suitable method of organizing, is disappearing from the national political scene, the Congress is getting more and more weakened. 

Quite unexpectedly the RSS-BJP seems to have done a thorough study of the caste system and the Congress still seems to play the same old game. In addition, the Congress and all regional parties are under attack as dynasty parties.

Culturally, the RSS-BJP announcing as their presidential candidate a Tribal woman, with a normally unacceptable name Droupadi, which no Dwija or Shudra/OBC family was willing to give to their girl child in the known modern history, will send a strong reform signal. Draupadi Pandava was treated as an abnormal, rather immoral, woman with five husbands and given her assertive autonomous role, unlike Sita in Ramayana or other women in Mahabharata. She was not considered to be an acceptable Hindu Nari. Her life and role represented a matrilineal social condition which still has some social base among the Indian tribes. It appears that this Santhal woman was named Droupadi in defiance of the fact that independent women like the Draupadi of Mahabharata are not acceptable.

In keeping with her name, Droupadi Murmu rose with confidence and chose a political career. Now she will proudly be the first Adivasi, that too a woman, president. Having opposed the RSS-BJP’s ideology and politics all my life, I can say that this is the most progressive reformative step they have taken. The Congress left many such reform measures that have serious socio-political implications to the RSS-BJP, a right-wing network that has been even more staunchly against reform all these years. Now, they are putting down roots with such steps.

Having come to power with an anti-Muslim agenda, the RSS-BJP forces need to take some Shudra/OBC/Dalit castes and Adivasis with them to win elections and they are seriously repositioning themselves in the sociopolitical realm. This does not mean that they are opposed to the brahmanical spiritual system, which built the fourfold varna order.    

From Draupadi of Mahabharata to Droupadi Murmu of 2022 the Hindutva forces have traversed the unusual terrain of cultural gimmick and change. The Hindu Dharma, to which the RSS-BJP claim ownership, treated tribals as Vanvasis (forest dwellers) without even allowing them to have the vision of a self-respecting citizen. They were deeply suspected to be the ultimate Christian force. But they are more than seven percent of the vote base, so they need to be engaged with some share in power. Draupadi Murmu as president thus plays a long-term beneficial role.

Those who condescendingly viewed the mythological Draupadi will now have to respect Droupadi Murmu as the first citizen of the nation and commander of our armed forces. No other woman with that name in the annals of India has been known for her role in public life. We have many Sitas, many Savitris and so on but not many Draupadis.  

Finishing touches being given to painting of President-elect Droupadi Murmu

Nowhere in RSS literature has Draupadi Pandava been shown as an adorable heroine. Only recently Shantishree Dhulipudi Pandit, the vice-chancellor of Jawaharalal Nehru University, projected Draupadi Pandava and Sita as first feminists. However, I do not think any woman intellectual associated with the RSS-BJP, leave alone their men, agrees with that view. When she described Pandava Draupadi as an autonomous, powerful woman – who opposed her chief husband Dharma Raja (Yudhisthira) staking her in Judam – and Sita as a first single mother, she went into a new propositional narrative. This kind of narrative was not proposed by feminist scholars either. The character of Draupadi in Mahabharat was that of a powerful independent woman who did not accept the patriarchal authority of her five husbands in particular and men in general. As patriarchy held sway in the post-epic times, Indian men promoted only those women whose life showed total obedience to men conditioned by Manu’s code. In this patriarchal cultural heritage the name Draupadi disappeared from our lives. Droupadi Murmu has brought it back, giving us a feeling of cultural regeneration.       

Shantishree’s narrative gains respectability with Draupadi Murmu becoming the president of India. I am sure Draupadi Murmu will outshine Pratibha Patil, the first woman president, a Maratha who did not leave behind any significant imprint of hers in Rastrapathi Bhavan and on the nation’s psyche. She did not do anything memorable for the women’s cause. K.R. Narayanan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, for example, left their indelible imprint in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and in the national discourse on certain issues like caste, youth education and so on. Pratibha Patil could have done so, at least around women’s issues, if only she chose to play the role of the first woman president.

Draupadi Murmu’s presence in the Rastrapathi Bhavan itself will be a morale booster to Adivasi communities of India. The RSS-BJP will try to use that as political capital and win elections in parliament as well as in the states with large Adivasi populations. But that itself will not leave a memorable history for her as a woman president. She has to show transformative vision and ideas based on her long journey from a tribal village in Odisha to the Rastrapathi Bhavan. Apart from the tribals, the women of India expect from Draupadi Murmu some initiatives that will have a positive impact in their lives.

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

Forward Thinking: Editorials, Essays, Etc (2009-16)

About The Author

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, author and activist. He has been a professor of Political Science at Osmania University, Hyderabad and director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He is the author of ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu’, ‘Buffalo Nationalism’ and ‘Post-Hindu India’ 

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