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Santhals: A Look At The Tribal Community Of India's New President Droupadi Murmu

The third largest schedule tribe community in the country after Gond and Bhil, the Santhal community’s history and heritage are under the spotlight at the national and international levels.

The Santhal community of India.
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Indian Presidential elect Droupadi Murmu, who is set to be sworn in as India’s 15th President, oasts of the many firsts. The first tribal woman to hold the position of President, Murmu represents the Santhal community. Murmu’s victory has given the Santhal community of India a chance to celebrate and gain further identification for themselves across Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal. 

The third largest schedule tribe community in the country after Gond and Bhil, the Santhal community’s history and heritage are under the spotlight at the national and international levels.

Here’s more about the community represented by the NDA-nominated presidential elect. 

Who are the Santhals?

The Santal, or Santhal, are a Munda ethnic group native to South Asia. They are agriculturists and eke their livelihood from farming. 

Santhal, also spelt as Santal, means a calm and peaceful person. ‘Santa’ means calm and ‘ala’ means a man in the Santhal language. 

Murmu’s home district, Mayurbhanj, in Odisha is one of the most densely populated places for Santhal inhabitation.  In Odisha, Santhals are found in Keonjhar and Balasore, other than the Mayurbhanj district.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI), Bhubaneswar, gives a detailed account of the present and history of the Santhal settlements, their social habits, and culture and so on.

The Santhal history and uprising 

The Santhals are an aboriginal tribe of India. They were a monadic tribe for the longest until they settled in the Chotanagpur Plateau. By the end of the 18 century, they had started settling in the Santhal Paraganas of Jharkhand (earlier Bihar) and from there eventually started migrating to West Bengal, Odisha and other states of northern India. 

The Santhal uprising, one of the most noted events of revolt against the British Raj, took place in 1855 and 1857.  This was India’s first major peasant uprising fueled by the implementation of the Permanent Land Settlement in 1793.

Through the aforementioned policy, the British government seized properties and lands those have been cultivated by the Santhals for ages. The Zamindari (landlord) system was introduced and Santhals were exploited for the longest until in 1850s, when they revolted against the British rulers. 

The Santhals took part in the guerrilla conflict. For Bihar, this was an unusual occurrence. In order to fight their oppressors, the Santhals organised their own army of peasants. Although the uprising proved successful for a short span, it failed to uproot the power and Armies of the British raj.

Social habits of the Santhals 

The literacy rate of the Santhals is comparatively higher than the other tribes of Odisha. Santhals speak Santhali which has its own script called ‘Ol chiki’ invented by Pundit Raghunath Murmu. Ol Chiki has also been included in the Eighth Commission of the Constitution and Santhal is also taught as a subject in many post-graduate degrees. 

They are nature worshipers and pay their obeisance at Jaher (sacred groves). When it comes to religion, the Santhals have no temples of their own and follow the Sarna religion.

The traditional attire of Santhals includes gamchaa and dhoti for men, while short-checked sarees for women. While various forms of marriage are acceptable within the community, divorce is never taboo. 

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They are very fond of their cultural folk songs and dance, and community members play different musical instruments including flute, sarangi, kamak and dhol.

Known as ‘Olah’, Santhals’ homes are mainly painted with three colours on the outer wall. The bottom is painted with black soil, the middle with white while the upper part is painted red. 

Renowned Santhal government officials 

While Murmu’s victory is being hailed ‘a golden era for Santhals’, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren also belongs to the Santhal community. Like many Santhals, who follow Sarna, Soren too has been wanting a special religious status for the Sarna people.

Chandra Murmu, the first Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and now the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, also belongs to the Santhal community.

Mayurbhanj Member of Parliament, Biseswar Tudu, a Santhal, is Union Minister for Tribal Affairs and Jal Shakti.

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