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In an ideal world, news of the election of Droupadi Murmu as India’s President would not be appended with her identity as an ‘Adivasi’. But it matters. That she will be our first ‘Tribal leader’ in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, thanks to the ruling party’s support, holds significance precisely because our politics is far from perfect. So long as various identifiable groups have uneven voices and identity continues to shape lives as a factor, the flaws of our democracy will be on display—most acutely visible to those left out. A fair stake in power for all is a national goal for good reason and every sign of progress on this must be celebrated. It should also cue some reflection on inclusion. Two points in favour of affirmative action to that end are worth a mention. The first is social justice, as nudged by this question: If we were all to be reborn at random as someone else, somehow, what methods and systems can we all agree upon to rule ourselves? The second is its value as a signal based on this insight: All will feel assured their group interests are kept at heart once we see the country’s powerful—its economic and governing elite—broadly reflect our actual social composition. While Dalits have had a long record of assertion and a major role in shaping our public life, Tribals have been more seen than heard. That must change.

The story of our Dalits and Tribals, the two groups India’s post-1947 upliftment agenda focused on, however, bears very few parallels. ‘Adivasi’ is a Hindi word for an aborigine. Many resident tribes, such as those who stay aloof on North Sentinel island of the Andamans, greeting any intrusion with hostility, have been found to reject overtures of modernity as we know it. President-elect Murmu’s home district of Mayurbhanj alone has as many as 52 tribes across its heavily forested 10,400-sq-km expanse, Santhal and Ho being the biggest, and each has a language so distinct from the other that they can’t be called dialects. For centuries, Indian Tribals mostly kept to themselves. In the republic’s early years, Nehruvian policy was calibrated to welcome Tribals gingerly on their own terms. One of Nehru’s advisors on Tribal affairs, Verrier Elwin (1902–1964) was a scholar who worked tirelessly for their dignity. Today, critics see this hands-off stance as too neglectful in its benign neglect, its logic overtaken by telecom airwaves that have given remote villages digital windows to the world. In this view, even forest-dweller Adivasis must be drawn out of isolation and given educational and other access to all that’s on offer. If Tribal consent has changed, so must our approach.

Adivasi assimilation is also an explicit project of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose chief in 2018 referred to the term ‘adivasi’ as “the core of our identity". The Sangh’s outreach began decades ago as an exercise in rivalry with Christian missionaries, Maoist rebels and others to ‘enrol’ Tribals into a Hindu fold of its definition, and has in recent years begun paying off by way of BJP poll successes as well. Electoral research suggests that Tribal participation in elections has risen and so has the party’s share of Adivasi votes. Ushering Murmu into the presidential palace will surely enhance BJP appeal. Observers who back this effort point to reduced Maoist violence in Tribal populated zones. The ballot, they say, holds greater sway than the bullet. For our politics to mature, however, mass empowerment must follow. And we mustn’t lose sight of how far we are from a fair equilibrium of power sharing.

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