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BHUBANESWAR, Odisha — He may have developed hearing issues, but 81-year-old Basanta Kumar Giri without much difficulty can recollect his former student, Droupadi Murmu.

On July 25, Murmu will become the next President of India. She is the first tribal woman to accede to the role: Murmu belongs to the Santhal tribe, the third largest scheduled tribe community in India after Gonds and Bhils. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader, who formerly served as governor of Jharkand, handily beat out her opponent Yashwant Sinha.

Murmu will be India’s second female president, after Pratibha Patil, who served from 2007-2012. She is the first president to be born after India’s Independence.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi roundly praised Murmu in a tweet. “Smt. Droupadi Murmu Ji has devoted her life to serving society and empowering the poor, downtrodden as well as the marginalised. She has rich administrative experience and had an outstanding gubernatorial tenure. I am confident she will be a great President of our nation.”

Proud Teacher

Basanta Kumar Giri. Standing near is his daughter in law, Sudharani who is also a teacher. (Photo courtesy of Debi Mohanty)

A sense of pride and excitement is writ large on Giri’s face. Trying hard to control his emotions, the octogenerian, who taught Murmu (then her surname was Tudu) from the first to fifth class in Uperbeda primary school, says, “I am a proud teacher today. My student, and our area’s daughter, is going to be the President of the country.”

Murmu was born on June 20, 1958 in Uperbeda village under Mayurbhanj district of India’s eastern state, Odisha. She studied up to the upper primary level in the village. Uperbeda is approximately 300 kms from the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

According to Giri, as a student Droupadi was very calm, obedient and disciplined. Throughout, she was the class topper. She was also the class monitor and good at sports (she ran well), and helped her classmates in their studies.  

“Never, not even once, there was any complain against Droupadi from her classmates,” reflects Giri. Post retirement since 2001, Giri is residing in Baliadhipa village, roughly over five hundred metres from Uperbeda.

Santhali Community

Murmu’s home district, Mayurbhanj has a dense concentration of the Santhali community. Though many from this community have done well in career, the majority are farmers. According to a local resident, Santhals are educationally ahead of the other tribes.

Like the other tribes, Santhals are culturally rich and are fond of their folk songs and dances that they perform at community events and celebrations. They play musical instruments like kamak, dhol, sarangi and flutes.

President Droupadi Murmu’s house in Rairangpur. (Photo courtesy of Debi Mohanty)

Grassroots Leaders

Prof. Prakash Chandra Sarangi, a political scientist and former vice chancellor of Revenshaw University in Cuttack, Odisha, says India’s constitution provides ample opportunities to common citizens, irrespective his/her status, caste, religion to reach the highest constitutional positions.

“It is the beauty of our constitution,” he says.

“In the past, we have seen many grassroots leaders with humble backgrounds who could occupy top offices (prime minister of the county and chief ministers of states). It shows how vibrant is our democracy. Certainly, Ms. Murmu’s election symbolizes empowerment of women,” says Sarangi.

Personal Tragedies

However, it’s not been an easy journey for Murmu.

After early education in Uperbeda, with the help of a relative, who was a minister in the Odisha government, she pursued her high school and college studies at Bhubaneswar.

Then she worked as a junior assistant in the State Irrigation and Power Department from 1979 to 1983 before returning to Rairangpur, a small town, twenty kilometers away from her village. There, as an honorary teacher, she taught at the Sri Aurobindo Integral Education and Research Centre, for four years.

Humble Beginnings

“She’s very cool and fond of students. In the school functions, she always cooperated with others. She’s a very good orator,” recalls Indira Otta, a colleague of Murmu at the school. Otta has since retired as principal of the school.

Murmu had her first brush with politics in Rairangpur. She was elected as the councilor to the notified area council in 1997 and went on to become the vice chairperson. Her commitment and efficiency caught the attention of the people living in and around Rairangpur.

Dularam Tudu

Subsequently, from 2000, as the BJP’s nominee, twice she was a Member of Legislative Assembly from the Rairangpur seat, served as a minister (2000-2004) in the Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government. From 2015-2021, she was the Governor of Jharkhand.

Murmu, though, hasn’t forgotten her roots. She often visits Uperbeda and mingles with the residents. The locals concede that she has made many contributions towards the development of the region.

At her father’s modest house in Uperbeda, lives Dularam Tudu with his wife Dulari and two children. Dularam is the son of Murmu’s late brother. “She had visited us two months ago,” says Dulari.

Making The Country Proud

When she was Governor, during a visit to her village in 2018,  Murmu had felicitated her teachers including Giri and Basudev Behera, 72. “Even today, she pays us the same respect that she used to do as a student,” claim both Giri and Behera. Showering praises on her, they exude confidence that their ward will make the country proud.

Basudev Behera, President Droupadi Murmu’s former schoolteacher. (Photo courtesy of Debi Mohanty)

Murmu has suffered multiple tragedies in her personal life. Between 2009 and 2015, she lost her husband, Shyam Charan Murmu, two sons, her mother and one of her brothers.  Her daughter, Itishree works with a bank.

 Tragedies though, failed to affect her commitment to responsibilities.

Not An Ornamental Office

Former bureaucrat, Aurobindo Behera thinks that a tribal becoming the first citizen is certainly a matter to be celebrated.

“At the same time, the institution of the President shouldn’t be an ornamental office, it should be in a position to hold the Indian society together. In other words, she should be the greatest champion of upholding the inclusive nature of our country,” says the former Indian Administrative Service officer who also belongs to Mayurbhanj district.  

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