On January 26 next year Jharkhand’s tableaux for the Republic Day parade will showcase its rich iron smelting history as part of the Make in India initiative. It will have replicas of the iron & steel factories of the state standing tall alongside an ancient tribe known for its iron-smelting expertise.
That tribe has an interesting history but like all other tribes in India, it might soon become history itself.
The tribe is Asur. They call themselves the descendants of Mahishasura, the asura who was slain by Goddesses Durga.
To them Durga Puja is a period of mourning, but apart from that there is no other difference between them and anyone else in India.
This Proto-Australoid group is one of Jharkhand’s many indigenous tribes. Technically, the tribe is one of the nine classified as Primitive Tribal Groups according to a 1975 concept.
Inhabiting the districts of Gumla, Lohardaga, Palamu and Latehar in Jharkhand and Purulia in West Bengal, Asurs constitute not more than 0.13 per cent of Jharkhand’s population.
Asurs are known to be experts in their principal (and historical) occupation of iron smelting. But like all other tribes in India, they too are facing a threat to their knowledge, culture, and tradition.
With only 7,000 speakers left, the Asur language has been listed as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO.
The iron that the asur tribe makes is known for its anti-rust properties. Researchers believe that it was this tribe which introduced the rust-free technology.
Most importantly their method of producing iron is safer, cheaper and eco-friendly.
The threat largely comes from the introduction of modern technology, forest conservation policy and the usual state apathy towards all tribes in general.
While modern technology makes it easier to mass produce iron, forest conservation policy deprives the Asur tribe of the most important ingredient for their iron – dead ‘sal’ wood.
The charcoal comes from this wood which is then mixed with crushed stones rich in iron ore and put through a process involving the use of two different kinds of furnaces.
But many members of this tribe have left this traditional occupation and taken to agriculture. The literacy rate is very low and they still live in mud houses.
The tribals allege that rampant mining for Bauxite is leaving no land for agriculture.
This picture was posted on Facebook page ‘We Asur Adiwasi’ run by Sushma Asur, an activist fighting for rights for her tribe.
The state government’s apathy has forced the Asur tribe to near extinction. Forget proper drinking facilities, these villagers had to themselves carve a canal on a hill to save water for daily needs. The villagers allege that not one official from the state ever visits their village.