It has been eight years since my father departed from this world on 3rd May 2012. Gurucharan Murmu, who entered the hallowed IPS (Indian Police Service) in 1972, is the first ever Santal to serve the Union Civil Services. Being his daughter and having to see him suffer all his life for his integrity and for upholding an incorruptible moral universe has been an agonizing experience. While it was personal pain earlier, it is more of anger towards gross violation of social justice that triggers me these days. The persistence of the skilfully devised myth that the thirty four years of left front rule in West Bengal has somehow abolished caste based discrimination is due to the pervasive dominance of the forward caste Bengali bhadralok over political, social, economic and cultural domains and academic discourses. Dismissal, oppression, deprivation, injustice, contempt and most importantly stigma and trauma of humiliation and harassment, “violation of dignity and human rights on account of caste disparity remain brutal everyday realities for adivasis in this state.
My father, Gurucharan Murmu, was born in 1944 in the village of Muransole, West Midnapore in the Jangal Mahal area of south western Bengal. Political independence did not ensure economic development for this cursed region and adivasis here continue to be inhabitants of a republic of hunger, still stalked by malnutrition, poverty and underdevelopment. The dismal location of adivasis in ‘progressive’ West Bengal reminds me of the speech delivered in the Constituent Assembly by Babasaheb B. R. Ambedkar on 25th November 1949. He cautioned us that while on 26th January 1950 India would adopt its Constitution, it would usher in ‘a life of contradictions’ whereby there would be political equality but unabated denial of socio-economic equality. He further added that if this equality is denied for long, and the contradiction is not removed at the earliest possible moment, political democracy in India would be in peril.
My grandfather, Barai Murmu, passed away even before my father had turned three. But his elder brother, Manik Chand Murmu, worked selflessly to make sure that he finished primary and secondary education. He performed competently enough at the Gandapal Primary School and later at Belpahari S. C. High School. By 1962, he had enrolled at the Scottish Church College in Calcutta for pre-university courses. Without the socio-economic and cultural capital required for a premier Calcutta college, he was something of a misfit. Every once in a while, he would be advised by his teachers to return to his village and take to agriculture or fishing for a living. Yet others encouraged him to go for higher studies in Sanskrit, in which he had displayed some proficiency. My father told me that even at that tender age he knew well enough that a Santal scholar of Sanskrit was a contradiction in terms. Reserved category candidates are invariably considered to be inferior in intellectual caliber and Sanskrit being associated with high culture, he furthermore had no realistic chance of making a respectable living in a society driven by casteist prejudices. He received his History Honours degree, and a Masters degree in Modern History from the University of Calcutta. In 1972, he had made it to the prestigious Indian Police Service. He began his career 1974 as the Assistant Superintendent of Police and went to become the Sub-divisional Police Officer (SDPO) of Lalbagh in Murshidabad district.
It was during his posting as Additional Superintendent of Police of Nadia district that the Left Front came to power in West Bengal (1977). A regime informed by the lofty principle of equality but managed by the upper caste bhadralok, the educated, urban and invariably upper caste ministers, the government confidently chose to push the social and political realities of caste based discrimination under the carpet and finally subsumed them under the rhetoric of class struggle. Whatever they might have promised on paper, there was very little leftism in their actual practice of authority. This uncompromisingly honest young officer soon fell out with the party in power. In consequence of his consistent differences with the ruling party, he would either be shunted off to a ‘punishment posting’ far away from Kolkata or to the unenviable status of an officer on ‘compulsory waiting’. On several occasions, he would file complaints to the Central Administrative Tribunal, protesting against institutionalized discrimination and a win in the legal battle saw us coming back to the city when I was old enough to be a college-goer. But obviously, his protests did not go down too well. No wonder he was denied the final promotion as an Additional Director General (ADG) in 2004 which had been due to him before retirement and he was superseded.
On 9 March, 2004, The Stateman, in its Kolkata edition, published a report on this episode. Titled Punished for Doing His Job Well?, the reporter Tanmay Chatterjee wrote:
Years later a journalist friend got me connected to the reporter Tanmay Chatterjee who wrote on my Facebook thus:
In the post he further added: ‘Your father was a brave man. A true Santhal. Wish I could do something more worthwhile for him. But the press has limited powers’.
Another report in Bartaman, the second most circulated Bengali daily in West Bengal, reported about how he had acquired a formidable reputation as a crusader against corruption during his tenure as the Inspector General of the Vigilance Commission. There was a conjecture, among other things, that the transfer was hastened to protect some corrupt operators close to the ruling party, and that for an individual to mount a campaign against corruption with wider social support, he or she had to belong to a more ‘mainstream’ background. I still retain the SIM card of my father which has bus numbers that would reach him to the Central Administrative Tribunal, Calcutta Bench. He indeed is an adorable man who never ceased to be rooted to the soil. But, he was struck down by a cerebral stroke soon after. I presume it was caused, at least partly, by the relentless persecution by the ruling party over so many years. The principled adivasi officer who had taken on the might of the ruling party of a province for years together, was finally held down to a literally vegetative existence, within a year of his retirement. He had moved to his native place soon after retirement. His post retirement dreams for a rural development complex, with a school, a hostel and an old age home made him buy a thirteen bigha plot in west Midnapore commuting thirty percent of his pension. He had also planted medicinal plants used by the Santals for curing diseases, perhaps as an extension of his unfinished doctoral research on ‘Santal Medicine Over Time and Space’. He in his academic essays explored the relation between Santali and other Austric languages with Sanskrit and Bengali. Numerous of his articles were published in popular Bengali magazines like ‘Mukta Ganga’, ‘Bartika’, ‘Samatat’, ‘Seemanta Sahitya’, ‘Ushree’, ‘Tatarekha’, ‘Murshidabad Sahitya Patrika’, ‘Murshidabad Parikrama’, ‘Murshidabad Sandesh’, ‘Mitali’, ‘Purbabhas’, ‘Uththan’, ‘Rodhbrishti’, ‘Shabdik’, ‘Ketaki’, ‘Beerbhumi’, ‘Uttar Bangla Patrika’, ‘Sahitya Bharati’, ‘Sahitya Saikat’, ‘Palikrit’, ‘Trapeze’, ‘Darshak’, ‘Adalbadal’, ‘Ushashi’, ‘Medha’, ‘Dhula Mandir’, ‘Godhuli Mon’, ‘Maryada Barta’, and Cultural Research Institute Bulletin to name a few. Apart from being one of the founder members of Paschim Banga Santali Academy, he is also the co-author of the book titled Bibliography: Santali Literature published in 1998. I remember him engrossed in writing a paper entitled ‘Decipherment Of The Indus Script’ in accordance with Iravatham Mahadevan’s The Indus Script Text Concordance and Tables (1977) and sound values gleaned from the world of scripts the day before he was struck by the stroke. His hypothesis was that the Austric-Santali language might have had some ancestral affinity with the language decoded by the Indus script. My only regret is sans the unrelenting social and institutionalized persecution to which he had been subjected to all his life, he could see at least some of his dreams through to reality.
An overtly emotional concluding note this might read, but this comes with hard-hitting realization. The adivasis of West Bengal who have managed to bridge the economic disparity with the bhadralok in whatever little way it is possible in this seventy years of independence, continue to live as the embodied ‘other’ of the bhadralok. Elevation to a degree of material comfort and professional standing are not shields against socio-cultural discrimination and caste-based humiliation. Forever cast out as perpetual outsiders, we might aspire to be a part of the ‘mainstream’, but the social and mental distance that the bhadralok create with us is impossible to bridge over, even in a Covid-19 free world.