Let me quote the oath President Draupadi Murmu took last year: “I, Droupadi Murmu, do swear in the name of God that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the Republic of India, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of India…” This solemn oath necessitates that the President of India preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. President Murmu will complete one year in office on July 25 and it’s time now to urge and remind the President of her Constitutional responsibilities. The President of India does not exercise executive powers, his or her role is more akin to that of a British monarch or the monarchs in countries like Netherlands or Spain. However, Indian Presidents are not entirely rubber stamps. Despite being a ceremonial or the titular head nothing stops them from asking the ministers to reconsider actions, offer private advice, convey warnings; they can even make public speeches which subtly indicate some differences of view with the government.
Being the first tribal President, Draupadi Murmu’s victory was hailed as a victory of representation, be it in gender or ethnicity — but has she been able to give voice to her courage of conviction? Has she been able to defend the Constitution? Has she risen to the occasion to go beyond her duties to assert herself? Let’s take a few examples to remind the Honourable President that had she broken her silence, perhaps the message would have been over-embracing. For more than three months women Olympian wrestlers struggled on the streets, cried for justice, were battered by the police — despite so many women’s organisations demanding justice there were no supportive voices from the government. A caution or a subtle warning from President Murmu could have sent out a stern message to the ruling dispensation. It’s more than three months now that Manipur has remained on the boil. Nearly 10,000 houses, over 500 churches, schools and other establishments have been burnt during the last two months. It is a month since Home Minister Amit Shah went to Imphal, stayed there for three days and talked to a cross-section of political leaders, though without any effect. No one knows the answer to the pain and anguish of Manipur, which does look like a man-made crisis. The President’s words would at least have been balm for the bruised hearts.
President Murmu’s silence was actually most deafening during the inauguration of the new Parliament building, when she was disparaged and insulted brazenly by not even being invited to the ceremony. The head of Parliament in India is the President — and she remained the uninvited guest! How she would have felt is something that present dispensation will never think about, but the President should have executed her Constitutional and institutional responsibility of reminding the government where it was going wrong. This was an apt moment for PresidentMurmu to correct a historical wrong for posterity. In her humility she may have not have wanted to rub the prime minister or his government the wrong way, but her assertion and insistence or rather a subtle expression of displeasure would have reminded the government of its gross omission, a blunder in the eyes of the world, and surely would have exposed the Modi government’s hollow symbolism.
Recently President Murmu was seen standing and worshipping outside the sanctum sanctorum of the Jagannath Puri temple in Delhi — while union ministers Ashwani Vaishnaw and Dharmendra Pradhan performed the puja from inside. This gave rise to the controversy that she wasn’t allowed inside the temple for being a tribal. Social media was abuzz but no clarification came from Rashtrapati Bhavan, whether it was out of choice, because of cultural convention, or due to religious coercion. If not for herself, the President should have spoken up for the lakhs and lakhs of tribals who look up to her as a paragon with a voice.
By remaining silent once again President Murmu has not only raised eyebrows but has obliquely sent out a message that despite being the Head of the State she still is not in a position to oppose canonical, conformist and conservative customs. This was a ceiling that needed to be broken loud and clear — but it never happened. The Government of India is trying to usher in a Uniform Civil Code which seemingly will deprive the rights of the backwards, Dalits and tribals. Can the President not ask the government to initiate a more exhaustive consultative process before introducing society to such a big change, which has the potential of snowballing into a rebellion or an unrest?
In times when Governors in non BJP states are becoming arbitrary, wayward and domineering, is time not ripe for Madam President to introspect as to why she is reduced to a helpless figure, where the governors seem to be wielding more power and authority. Are Raj Bhavans becoming more powerful than Rashtrapati Bhavan? Be that as it may, certainly it’s another breach of democracy and Consitution. Is this not the Constitutional duty of the President of India? Despite whatever limitations, President Murmu will continue to be revered and respected for thechair she occupies but her silence will go down in history as something unacceptable. If she speaks up, she will not only be remembered as a stoic guardian and champion of the Constitution but will also tell the world how a tribal can have a strong voice against a government seemingly so brute. President Murmu could play a crucial role in 2024 elections if BJP doesn't have solid numbers, both PM and honourable Murmu realise this. The PMO may try and balance out equations with Rashtrapati Bhavan to keep the President in good humour for reasons purely political, but discourtesy and disdain for President Murmu are perhaps wounds that can never heal and madam President needs to express and speak up. Will she go down in history books as the only President heaped with so many insults, snubs and affronts?
Neelu Vyas is a senior television anchor and consulting editor with Satya Hindi