Yogi inaugurates 700-cr HUL project

Published on Jul 21, 2022 11:43 PM IST

Chief minister Yogi Adityanath on Thursday virtually inaugurated HUL’s (Hindustan Unilever Ltd) ₹700-crore new factory and distribution centre at the company’s plant in Sumerpur (Hamirpur) in the Bundelkhand region of the state

Chief minister Yogi Adityanath inaugurating the new factory and distribution centre at the company’s plant in Sumerpur (Hamirpur) in the Bundelkhand region on Thursday. (HT PHOTO)
Chief minister Yogi Adityanath inaugurating the new factory and distribution centre at the company’s plant in Sumerpur (Hamirpur) in the Bundelkhand region on Thursday. (HT PHOTO)
By, Lucknow

Sixty-three-year-old Tapati Mandal did not know it then, but two simple words she heard one morning in 1964 were destined to be the beginning of a miraculous story.

Mandal was in her run-down classroom at the government upper primary school in the tribal hamlet of Uparbeda. The school was a single-storey pink walled structure, the playground full of both weeds and snakes. The classroom itself had paint peeling off the walls and rickety wooden furniture to sit on. Next to her, on one such chair was her nine-year-old friend, pigtailed and eager; the Class 4 topper, Droupadi Tudu.

The teacher asked students to recite a poem, and the topper volunteered again. Mandal knew which poem was coming, and why. The verses were from an Odia translation of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. In the run up to that day, the teacher had told his wards that the poem was Jawaharlal Nehru’s favourite, famously kept on his bedside table. Young Tudu was taken by the reference. So when her friend finished the last stanza with the words, “there are miles to go before I sleep”, Mandal recalls mocking her, she asked her classmate if she planned to become a leader like India’s first Prime Minister. “I laugh when I think about that day. Perhaps, even then, she was predicting her own future,” Mandal says.

A nine-year-old Tudu turned to Mandal, her eyes fiery. “Why not?” she asked.

Why not, indeed. Fifty-five years later, on July 21, 64-year-old Droupadi Tudu, now Droupadi Murmu, became the 15th President of India, and the country’s first woman tribal commander-in-chief.

The beginning

Tucked away in a corner of Rairangpur subdivision of Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, Uparbeda is a village of close to 2,500 people, most of them Santhal tribals. Many homes are still made of mud and thatch, their walls painted with the folk art depicting flowers, fruits and forests. The terrain is lush, green and remote, dotted with sal, tamarind and teak. There is still no irrigation, so everyone is a subsistence farmer, dependent on minor forest produce for sustenance. There is a primary health care centre, but the lone doctor is irregular. Most simply ignore the dilapidated building and go to the subdivisional hospital in Rairangpur town 25km away. There is still no piped drinking water for every home, and there is the constant fear of wild elephants.

Sixty years ago, when Droupadi Murmu was growing up, the village was even more remote.

The 1971 Census put the literacy rate of Mayurbhanj district at 12.22%. There were no matriculate (a class 10 qualification) women in Uparbeda, and Murmu was determined to be among the first. Basudev Behera, who taught her at the upper primary school where she studied from Class 1 to 7, said: “She was good at studies, and determined at everything she did. I remember one day it poured through the night. The next morning, even teachers skipped school. But I watched her arrive, half swimming and half wading through water. I told her that she had immense potential, and that she would one day become a teacher.”

Even then, Uparbeda was too small for Murmu’s dreams. Her father, Biranchi Tudu, was the village chief, but like everyone else, was a marginal farmer. Pushed by his daughter, in 1970, Biranchi Tudu took her to a public meeting held by Kartik Chandra Majhi, then the local MLA and the urban development minister in chief minister RN Singh Deo’s government. In the middle of the congregation in Rairangpur, an impatient 12-year-old Murmu walked up to the minister, her Class 7 mark sheet in her outstretched hand. Majhi, also from Uparbeda, was impressed. He told her that he would get her admitted to a school in Bhubaneswar.

In July 1970, Murmu packed her bags and moved to a girls’ high school in the state capital, 280km away. She lived at the Kuntala Kumari Sabat hostel. In the years that followed, Murmu stayed on in Bhubaneswar, completed her schooling, and joined the Rama Devi women’s college in 1974 where she studied sociology and political science.

Murmu was far away from her rural Santhali roots, surrounded by friends from urban backgrounds, and money was hard to come by. “Biranchi would send her 10 rupees a month, and she never asked for more. She would not even go to the canteen because she couldn’t afford it. All her energy was on completing her education, and getting a job so she could ease the burden on her father,” said 41-year-old Saraswati Tudu, her father’s youngest sister.

In 1979, Murmu got her first job as a junior assistant at the Odisha secretariat.

Tentative steps into politics

Shortly after, she married Shyam Charan Murmu, then a bank cashier in Bhubaneswar and from the village of Pahadpur, 10km away from Uparbeda. In 1980, Murmu became a mother for the first time, and three years later quit her government job to take care of her children — two sons and another daughter were born soon after. But she encountered a debilitating personal tragedy when her firstborn daughter died of an illness in 1988.

In 1993, Shyam Charan Murmu was transferred to their home block of Rairangpur, posted as an officer with Bank of India. Itching to do something productive, Murmu enrolled as a teacher at the Arabinda Integral Education School. She was paid no salary; just rickshaw fare to and from home. Indira Ota, a former colleague, said, “She had her own way of endearing herself to the students by telling them stories or giving chocolates to those who completed their homework on time. She encouraged children to take part in extracurricular activities and would often give inspirational speeches. She was very well-known in town.”

Murmu’s reputation as a popular teacher grew, and she soon began to draw attention. In 1997, one of the wards in the Rairangpur Notified Area Council, where Murmu lived with her family, became reserved for tribal women. As parties scouted for a suitable candidate, they zeroed in on her. The Congress and the newly formed Biju Janata Dal (BJD) both approached her, but prodded by a fellow tribal teacher Dibakar Mahanta and local Bharatiya Janata Party worker Nigamananda Patnaik, she signed up with the BJP.

Patnaik was then the party in-charge of the ward where Murmu lived with her husband. “As the ward was reserved for a tribal woman and there were many bank officials that lived in that area, we thought we should give her the ticket. Her husband did have some reservations about her getting into politics, but he agreed after many of us persuaded him,” said Patnaik.

Murmu won, and became vice chairperson of NAC, a post that was also reserved for tribal women.

By this time, she and her husband had a white Maruti 800, a vehicle that soon became ubiquitous in the narrow lanes of Rairangpur. “She would come in her car and supervise sanitation work in each and every ward. This was very unusual in regional politics where most take a back seat after winning an election,” said local hotelier Debabrata Patnaik, who also canvassed for her in the elections.

BJD MLA Rajkishore Das, who began his political journey in the BJP, mentored Murmu in her initial years. “She rose through the ranks very quickly because she was accessible, hardworking and that endeared her to the local BJP cadre. Her doors were always open for local residents about civic grievances,” said Das.

Her reputation kept growing, and in 2000, the BJP gave her the ticket for the Rairangpur assembly constituency despite stiff opposition from party veterans. She won, and in a rare move for a first-time MLA, was immediately made minister for transport, fisheries and animal husbandry in the coalition government formed between the BJP and the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD. She was 42.

BJP leader and former minister Kanak Vardhan Singh Deo, who was industries minister in the same cabinet between 2000 and 2004, said that Murmu was given the honour despite being a relative novice because of her rare grassroots connect with tribals from her area. “I had seen her work during her days in Rairangpur NAC and the party thought she should be promoted. Though she was a first-time MLA, she learnt the ropes quickly, was sympathetic and efficient, and importantly, stayed away from controversies. For a person that young, these abilities already meant she was well on her way to becoming a successful politician,” said KV Singh Deo.

Murmu was given the “Nilakantha Award” for being the best MLA for the year 2007 by the legislative assembly of Odisha, and between 2002 and 2009, was a member of national executive of ST Morcha of the BJP.

But starting 2009, Murmu began facing setbacks — both political and personal. In 2009, she lost the Mayurbhanj Lok Sabha seat, finishing third behind Laxman Tudu of the BJD and Sudam Marndi of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, managing only 18.26% of the votes cast. That same year, her 25-year-old son Laxman passed away suddenly — he was brought dead to his uncle’s residence after dinner with friends. Police suspected that Laxman had suffered head injuries after a bike collision as he was coming home.

Four years later, her other son, Sipun, also died in a car accident. In 2014, she lost her husband Shyam Charan Murmu to a cardiac arrest. Despite the personal tragedies, she fought the Rairangpur assembly constituency the same year, but lost to the BJD’s Saiba Sushil Kumar Hansdah by over 6,000 votes.

For some months, Murmu sank into a well of anguish, and told her family that she was considering quitting politics. “She became absent-minded and stopped eating regularly. Even if you spoke to her, she would not pay attention, and drift away. I tried to tell her about the futility of dwelling in the past because it was clearly affecting her. I remember telling her that we would all die one day, and she needed to live a life helping others without regret,” said her aunt Saraswati Tudu.

The following year, in 2015, Murmu seemed to rebound. She joined the Prajapita Brahmakumaris, turned vegetarian, and began waking up at 3.30am to meditate. “The spiritual turn brought her back from the brink and she seemed calm and herself again. She began to smile again, and that steel in her eyes that we so admired returned,” said younger brother Taranisen Tudu.

The rise and rise

Later that year, even as her political career looked like it was stagnating, Murmu was given another lease of life, and appointed governor of Jharkhand — the first woman to hold the position. Here, too, Murmu displayed a fierce sense of determination, even if it came at the expense of her own party’s government.

In 2016, the Raghubar Das-led BJP government tried to pass amendments to the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act. The CNT Act barred non-tribals from purchasing tribal land on the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, while the SPT Act prohibited land transfers in the Santhal Pargana division where CNT was not applicable. The proposed amendments sought to acquire land belonging to tribals, Dalits and backward classes for infrastructure projects. Even as the Opposition protested against the incumbent government, calling the laws a method to weaken the institutional protection that the two acts provided, Murmu sat on them for eight months, and eventually returned them to the government, refusing to sign them into law.

“Murmu told the government that she would not sign an anti-tribal bill. She asked the government to let her know how the amendments would help adivasis. It was her way of showing that she was no pushover,” said a senior IAS officer in Jharkhand who worked with her.

While she discharged her duties as Jharkhand governor, Murmu never lost sight of home.

She built a residential high school for tribal children in Pahadpur village in 2016. Named SLS (Shyam, Laxman, Sipun; after her husband and sons) Memorial Residential school, the institution is spread over three acres donated by Murmu, in which 75 students between classes 6 and 10 live and study. Janmejay Giri, headmaster of the school, said Murmu makes it a point to visit at least six times every year, on the birth and death anniversaries of her husband and two sons.

On Thursday afternoon, sounds of a celebration, at a scale yet unseen, filled the village of Uparbeda. Most residents were out on the streets singing and dancing, tribal performers beat drums, and distributed sweets.

Murmu’s childhood friend Tapati Mandal stayed inside her two-room home, her health forbidding her from joining the festivities. She offered a small prayer for Murmu in her home, and spent the morning cooking rice porridge for her family and neighbours. By noon, Mandal sat herself down in front of the small TV, and watched the visuals beamed from Parliament, hungry for every glimpse of her friend.

“When I prayed in the morning, I asked God to protect her, and that she comes home to Uparbeda soon,” she said. “I want to see her. I want to meet my friend, the President of India.”

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