Droupadi Murmu, belonging to the Santhali tribe, is all set to become the first woman tribal President of India. The Santhalis, the third-largest scheduled tribe community in the country, are mostly distributed in Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance announced former Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu as the presidential candidate for the upcoming 18 July election, the Santhal tribe was ecstatic.
As Murmu gears up for the presidential polls, where the odds are in her favour, let’s take a closer look at the Santhal tribe that she belongs to and how her being on the way to Rashtrapati Bhavan is a big deal for the community.
Santhals’ life and history
Santhals, also spelt as Santals, are the third largest scheduled tribe community in India after the Gonds and Bhils. Their population is mostly distributed in Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Murmu’s home district, Mayurbhanj, has one of the largest concentrations of the tribe. In Odisha, Santhals are found in Keonjhar and Balasore, other than Mayurbhanj district.
As per the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI), Bhubaneswar, the word ‘Santhal’ is derived from two words; ‘santha’ meaning calm and peaceful and ‘ala’ meaning man.
The SCSTRTI says that the Santhals led a nomadic life in the past but then settled in the Chhotanagpur plateau. Towards the end of the 18th century, they migrated to the Santhal Parganas of Bihar and then they came to Odisha.
The Santhals are also credited for taking on the force of the East India Company through the Santal Hul (revolution) of 1855-56. The anguished Santhals formed their own troops which included farmers and marched against their oppressors. They destroyed the postal communications along with the rail lines and burgled and vandalised storehouses and warehouses. When the British was made aware of the situation, they sent the military to gun down the Santhals.
While, the revolt wasn’t successful, it is considered as the forerunner of the Naxalite movement in Bengal. The Santhal Rebellion is also considered to be one of the most extraordinary incidents in the history of pre-independent Indian subcontinent.
Social habits of the Santhals
The Santhals have a high literacy rate compared to other tribes in Odisha. As per a Times of India report, their high literacy could be attributed to a pro-school education awareness since at least the 1960s.
When it comes to religion, the Santhals have no temples of their own and follow the Sarna religion.
SCSTRTI Director AB Ota was quoted as saying, “Though they have progressed well in different spheres, they have not forgotten their roots and ethno-religious practices. They are nature worshipers and pay their obeisance at Jaher (sacred groves) irrespective of the positions they hold.”
Santhals speak Santhali, which belongs to the Austro- Asiatic language family. Santhals have their script called Olchiki, which was developed by Dr Raghunath Murmu in 1925.
Various forms of marriage are accepted in the Santhal society – including elopement, widow remarriage, levirate, forced (rare) and the one in which a man is made to marry the woman he has impregnated.
Santhal houses called ‘Olah’ are distinct and can be identified from a distance. They are large, neat and attractive with multi-coloured paintings on the outside walls. The bottom of the wall is painted with black soil, the middle portion with white and the upper portion with red.
Murmu isn’t the only Santhali that has brought honour to the tribe. Hemant Soren, the current chief minister of Jharkhand, also belongs to the Santhal tribe.
Chandra Murmu, the first Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, is now Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The 1985 batch IAS officer of Gujarat cadre was a close confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mayurbhanj Member of Parliament, Biseswar Tudu, a Santhal, is Union Minister for Tribal Affairs and Jal Shakti.
On Murmu’s nomation, Biseswar was quoted as saying, “At a personal level, I got emotional, especially since Droupadi jee is from my community and my district. Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government’s commitment towards upliftment of tribals is immeasurable.”
With inputs from agencies