In school, his teachers would often advise him to return to his village and take up occupations ‘more fit’ for people from his community like fishing or agriculture. Instead, he would go onto make history.
Born in 1944, in Muransole, a village located in the remote area of West Midnapore district, Gurucharan Murumu joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1972, and in doing so, became the first ever Santal to have served in the Union Civil Service.
“Coming from such a place where Adivasis continue to be inhabitants of a republic of hunger, still stalked by malnutrition, poverty and underdevelopment, Gurucharan Murmu’s achievement remains an admirable feat,” says Maroona Murmu, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and his daughter, speaking to The Better India.
Overcoming incredible odds, the former IPS officer served with distinction, honesty and integrity, which unfortunately also meant often clashing with vested political interests during the 34-year-long reign of the Left Front government.
This is his remarkable life story.
On 25 November 1949, Dr. BR Ambedkar had delivered a stirring address to the Constituent Assembly, talking about the immense challenges before the young republic.
“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value,” he said.
Growing up, Gurucharan would encounter constant denials by the social and economic establishment on account of his identity as an Adivasi. His father passed away before he even turned three, but his elder brother, Manik Chand Murmu, stepped up to earn for the family and ensure that he finished primary and secondary school at the Gandapal Primary School and Belpahari SC High School respectively.
By the time 1962 came around, he enrolled for his pre-university course at the Scottish Church College in present-day Kolkata. Despite his obvious intelligence, he was often seen as a misfit by both his teachers and fellow classmates.
In fact, his teachers would often advise him to return to his village and take up occupations ‘better suited’ for people from his community like fishing or agriculture. Fortunately, upon seeing his proficiency in Sanskrit, a language often associated with intellectual ability and high culture, a few encouraged him to not pay heed to those remarks, and instead pursue higher education.
But he knew that living in a society deeply entrenched in caste inequalities as a reserved category student, he would never be able to earn a respectable career teaching Sanskrit.
So, he studied history, and finished his Bachelors and Master’s degree in Modern History from the University of Calcutta.
He would go on to clear the notoriously difficult UPSC exams, and join the IPS in 1972. His career began as an Assistant Superintendent of Police of Lalbagh in Murshidabad district two years later in 1974 before becoming a Sub-Divisional Police Officer there.
The IPS Officer Who Paid a Price for Honesty
When the Left Front government took office in 1977, Gurucharan was serving as Additional Superintendent of Police in Nadia district. However, he came into contact with a government that accelerated the politicisation of the police force.
“In 1979, [Chief Minister] Jyoti Basu had a brainwave: inject politics into a disciplined force by forming the Calcutta Police Association. It also paved the way for the formation of non-gazetted unions in the district police lines. With most promotions and postings defined by political equations, the personnel in uniform became an extension of the party. Handpicked officers were busy serving the interests of the government and the party, leaving corrupt and inept officers to call the shots in law and order management,” notes this scathing Telegraph assessment.
For the likes of Gurucharan, who was only concerned with the honest performance of his duties in upholding the rule of law, there was bound to be a falling out with the ruling government. From challenging the violence unleashed by the party’s cadre, political and bureaucratic corruption to standing his ground against unfair treatment meted out to him, his uncompromising integrity often came in the way of career progression.
“Like most parties in power, the tendency is to shield people who are close to the party or encourage corruption of various sorts that would benefit the party in power. My father did whatever he thought was beneficial for the people whom he served. He took up the job to serve the people of this country to the best of his ability and remained undeterred in this mission. Nothing could enfeeble his determination to do good to the people, not even the ire of the party in power. He suffered endlessly, not being posted in Kolkata till he filed a case against the state government at the Central Administrative Tribunal. He was posted to Kolkata only when I was about to enter college,” recalls Maroona, when describing her father’s plight.
In fact, according to a 9 March report in The Statesman’s Kolkata edition in 2004, reporter Tanmay Chatterjee writes about how the IPS officer was denied his final promotion as an Additional Director General (ADG) which was due before retirement. Instead, he was superseded.
“Is an apparently upright IPS officer being punished for the diligence with which he pursued corruption in officialdom? That, at least, is what a section of IPS officers in the state believe. Now, there are ripples of protest among a section of IPS officers in the state over the State government not promoting Mr Gurucharan Murmu, the IG (Traffic) … Although he is reported to have earned the ire of bureaucrats for being ‘stubborn’, a number of his colleagues believe his ‘unpopularity’ stemmed from his Vigilance Commission tenure. He was transferred within 13 months. When he found that the Commission’s queries were not being answered by Writers Building on time, Mr Murmu started sending the queries directly to the vigilance officers of individual departments. Officials said that Mr Murmu went to the extent of sending a note to the former Vigilance Commissioner Mr RN Kali,” noted Tanmay in his report titled ‘Punished for Doing His Job Well?’
In fact, another major Bengali daily Bartaman reported that during his tenure as Inspector General of the Vigilance Commission, the State government got him out of the door because he was going after some corrupt officials close to the ruling party.
“Today urban India cries her heart out if a member of the subaltern society is ill-treated. Well, I met Mr Murmu, the first Santal who became an IPS officer. Correction: I met a Santal who suffered for doing his job as a police officer….Her father was a brave man. A true Santal. Wish I could do something more worthwhile for him, but the press has limited powers,” says Tanmay.
He goes onto note how Mr. Murmu wasn’t very keen on portraying himself as a victim in the media, and for the most part suffered in silence.
Writing for Shillong-based publication Raoit, Maroona says, “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 [in 2005].”
During his years of service, amidst all the turbulence, he found solace in academic pursuits, writing essays on the relationship between his native Santali language and other Austric languages with Sanskrit, a passion he left behind after college.
His essays were published in numerous Bengali magazines of repute. Moreover, he was among the founding members of the Paschim Banga Santali Academy and even co-authored Bibliography: Santali Literature published in 1998.
Speaking to The Better India, Maroona says, “He knew Santali, Bengali, English, Sanskrit and Farsi. But this passion for Sanskrit remained within him and he continued to explore the relation between Santali and other Austric languages with Sanskrit and Bengali in his academic essays. The same goes for his decade long engagement with the deciphering of Indus Script. His hypothesis was that the Austric-Santali language might have had some ancestral affinity with the language decoded by the Indus script. Most indigenous communities inherit traditional knowledge about medicinal plants and that is a part of their everyday living. This led to his unfinished doctoral research on ‘Santal Medicine Over Time and Space’.”
Following his retirement, he went back to Muransole, where he envisioned building a rural development complex with a school, hostel and old age home. For this purpose, he even spent 30 per cent of his pension buying 13 bighas of land. Sadly, his vision remained unfulfilled.
“We found out that the person from whom he had bought the 13 bigha land had not registered the land in Jhargram court. My father had informed me that he had given the money for the land to be registered but I think the concerned person had come to know about his cerebral attack and cheated us. The complex remains his lofty unattained dream,” she says.
He eventually passed on 3 May 2012, spending his last few years in a vegetative state. It’s hard not to wonder if all those years of professional persecution finally caught up with him.
“Since the intensity of structural and symbolic violence is more powerful here in West Bengal, those under casteist scanners alone can feel the palpable hatred but evidence is hard to come by. Soon after adivasis enter academic and professional spaces, the process of social exclusion and institutionalized discrimination are set in motion. It is at best, a ‘discriminatory inclusion’ where these people are made to understand that these particular spheres do not “belong” to them and they are an ‘inefficient’ lot,” she argues.
Upon reading Maroona’s personal tribute to her father earlier this month on social media, his senior in the State police wrote, “Maroona, we all know that your father was discriminated against. He was never given charge of a District for which an IPS officer is selected. It is most unfortunate that these discriminations continue in society.”
To this day, the adivasi community remains criminally underrepresented in the State’s bureaucracy, educational institutions and politics.
Nonetheless, Gurucharan emerged out of all that and in his own way made history. He showed generations of young Santals in the state that it’s possible to make it against all odds if one has the determination to withstand hardship that would come by. That’s his legacy.
(All images courtesy Maroona Murmu)
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)