Rairangur (Odisha): To the music of cymbals and dhols, prayers are on at a local temple for Droupadi Murmu’s victory in her village, Pahardpur, where women have pulled out the best of their traditional wear — a unique form of sari called jhela in Santhali — ready to greet journalists and government officials.
Within days, this remote area in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is the subject of national headlines — after all, it now has a direct connection with Raisina Hill as NDA candidate Ms Murmu is all but elected as India’s first tribal President.
The village is near the border with Jharkhand. Nearly 80 per cent of the population is tribal, and the Santhal community of Droupadi Murmu is the dominant group.
For Ms Murmu, the journey from what used to be a backward tribal belt has been far from easy. Yet, she is not a stranger to being the first at something.
She was the first from her paternal village, Uperbeda in the same district, to go to college in state capital Bhubaneshwar, about 270 kilometres away. Her parents could afford to just ₹ 10 as monthly allowance for her.
The village was only recently completely electrified — the last few hamlets got supply on the day of her nomination.
Struggle and simplicity, thus, are big parts of her personality, reflected also in a five-room house in the nearby town of Rairangpur. Bought by her husband in the 1990s, this continues to be home after her term as Governor of Jharkhand ended last year. Her husband was a bank official, who added to the house a hall and a verandah for visitors.
Ms Murmu’s brother, Taranisen Tudu, fondly called Diku Bhaiyya, is expectedly excited. “The first lady from the Santhals to be India’s Number One — just think how happy we all must be,” he told.
Ms Murmu started out as a government clerk, and was a schoolteacher before becoming a councillor in Rairangpur. She became MLA twice and also a minister. She was appointed Governor of Jharkhand in 2015.
Political associates in Rairangpur remember her carrying an umbrella in hand, supervising sanitation work as a councillor. As a minister too, they say, she took interest in development of the area.
But Ms Murmu’s personal life was marked by tragedy, thrice. She lost both her sons in their twenties to accidents, and then her husband eight years ago. Today the family of five has just two members, Ms Murmu and her daughter, Itishree.
Ms Murmu built a school in memory of her husband and sons — SLS Memorial School, named after her husband Shyam Charan and sons Lachman and Shipun.
“Madam wants to do something for the people here so they can rise. This school, fully residential, is up to Class 10,” said Munna Bhai, the school administrator.
The government school in Pahardpur is only up to Class 8. Women here say older children have to go three kilometres away to nearby Badampahar, where there is a higher secondary school, besides two colleges.
Rukmani Mumru, 34, is the sarpanch. Her hope is that there will soon be more schools here, besides regular drinking water and a primary health centre, after Ms Murmu becomes President. Also on her wish list is a bus that can take girls to study further at Badampahar.
Sona, wife of the local priest and a community leader, kept it simple, “Everyone here may not make it to the top post, but we hope that the village progresses.”
The wishes and hopes are many, and may take time, but there’s immense symbolism already in Droupadi Murmu becoming the First Citizen.
For the Adivasi population, which till a few decades ago existed on the margins of society, it’s time for one of their own to take centre stage.