The term tribal defies any universal definition. Between the Maoris of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia and the Indigenous People of North America, there is a shared historical fact. They were all there before the colonial powers pushed them to margins. This is not so in the case of all tribal communities in India.
Some of the Indian tribes such as the Onges and the Jarawas of Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been entirely indigenous. Some others like the Banjaras in Western and Central India and the Gujjars in the Himalayas have been nomadic. And, some, such as several sub-groups of Bhills, have migrated in various historical phases to their present geographical locations. The stories of migration of such communities are found in their oral traditions. The diverse histories of tribes in India are seen among the ‘Particularly Vulnerable Groups’ as well. The term ‘primitive’ used for them at one time has fortunately been declared as pejorative.
In the context of a pan-Indian consideration, Asurs look like one single community. However, it is not really a monolith and has several distinct sub-groups within it. It likes to classify the members under the captions: ‘Vir-Asur’, ‘Virajiya-Asur’ and ‘Agariya-Asur’. These three clan categories also reflect the different occupations that Asurs have traditionally followed. Some of them lived by forest produce and hunting, others engaged in smithy, making agricultural implements and some others lived by agricultural work.
The ancestry of the Asurs is not quite clear. Going by the most widely shared tale of their origin, it seems that two of these three sub-groups came from ‘outside’ and were adopted and endeared by a third sub-group which had been resident in the area from earlier times. The folktale speaks of two children — a girl and a boy — being lifted up by a cyclone — a mythological person — and being dropped atop a hill. The twins could not be rescued but subsequently became ‘spirits to be worshipped’.
Oral history mentions that Sarguja district in Madhya Pradesh was the original habitat of the Asurs, or at least of one of the three clans. At present, they are resident in the forests of Palamu, Gumla and Lohardaga in Jharkhand. They inhabit the region spread between Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Asurs speak a language quite different from Bangla and Hindi, which is derived from the Proto Asutroloid source. It can be surmised that their contact with the others with Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages has been not as intimate as the contact that most other tribal communities in India had with them. In recent years, some NGOs have attempted to document and place in print some of the Asur language words and a few folk songs.
The term ‘Asur’ occurs in ancient Indian literature right from the Vedic age. ‘Asur’ initially meant a powerful god and later came to be associated with ‘darkness’ or ‘deprived of the Sun’. Nearly a hundred or more locations such as forts and cemeteries in Ranchi district and surrounding areas show signs of some Asur association inscribed in the local folklore. However, it is difficult to press these claims beyond a point as they have neither followed the ideas of divinity central to the ancient literature, nor do they show traces of having participated in the historical dynamics of the region. This is borne by the fact that Asurs mostly follow the ‘Sarana’ (or Sharana) faith, to which many tribal communities in the eastern states subscribe, and which has as ancient an origin as other faiths in the sub-continent. The Sarana theology likes to depict ecology as the most important ethical guide for humans. As part of this, man and other animals belong to the earth, the earth does not belong to them. Some of them have started accepting Hindu myths and gods. Some others have moved to Christianity.
The Asur community is facing a serious threat of extinction. Their population is not growing on a par with the general growth in Indian population. In Singhbhum, their population could be counted in two digits, while in places like Dhanbad district and Raidih block of Jharkhand, it can be counted in a single digit. Bishupur in the state has the highest Asur population, which is under 10,000. Their literacy rate in 1971 was a mere 5.5 per cent. At that time, they were in the top 5 per cent of ‘the most illiterate’ communities country-wide. Today, they continue the same legacy though the literacy rate has now increased to over 20 per cent. But this has not increased their livelihood security. Rather, the opposite is true. The spread of mining activity in their region has reduced them to greater penury.
Given the struggle for survival and cultural existence they face, it matters little to them if they are Hindus or not. What they need is livelihood and a threat-free environment. The young generation among Asurs requires more hostels in cities for them so that they can attend high school, polytechnic and college for learning new life-skills. Those among them that have some agricultural talent require the pattas for the land that they have cultivated for centuries. If this can happen without their being coaxed to worship Durga, they would feel culturally safeguarded. As the most popular Asur folksong states, “ Hai, re, Aam pedon-ko aandhi tufaan maar rahaa hai… (Alas, the storm raging round us is destroying the mango trees).” How sad, in our republic!