“Our hunting, our economy and even our festivities were interlinked to iron smelting”: The Asur community’s last custodians of a traditional technique – Jharkhand

Laldeo Asur is one of the last custodians of the traditional technique of iron smelting by Asurs.
Photo © Abhishek Saha/HT
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Laldeo Asur passes his days basking in the mellow winter sun, his 70-year-old body now too frail for the rigours of village life.

But it is not his advancing age he is too concerned about but the advance of modernity on his tribe, the Asurs.

Laldeo knows that after him there will be none to practice a traditional technology for iron smelting, a craft perfected by his forefathers but grown obsolete and economically unviable in an age of modern steel plants.

As a matter of fact, Laldeo is among the 22,000-odd left of the Asurs, one of the eight particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) in Jharkhand.  The Unesco has listed the Asur language as “definitely endangered” with only 7,000 speakers left.

“Our hunting, our economy and even our festivities were interlinked to iron smelting. Today, everything is gone,” Laldeo said, his weather-beaten face contorting in anguish. […]

The Asurs were once hunter-gatherers whose life was closely linked to the forests they lived in. However, when the British enacted the Indian Forest Act in 1865, several tribes like the Asurs were cut off from their roots as the legislation restricted the use of forest-based products.

After independence, the Indian government too virtually forced these nomadic tribes to settle down and adopt an agrarian lifestyle. […]

Laldeo explained that their smelting method included putting crushed stones rich in iron ore and charcoal in a cylindrical furnace which is then fanned by deer-skin bellows. The iron was then used to make farming tools and household items and sold in nearby rural markets.

But today none of the tribesmen earn a living by making iron products and the younger Asurs have started working in the numerous bauxite mines in the hills of the Pat region. Some have even turned cultivators and agricultural labourers. […]

The Asurs still live in mud houses with roofs made of paddy straw and baked, curved mud tiles known as khapras. Power supply is restricted to a few hours in the day but there is no mobile phone network.

The nearest community health centre is 50km away while villagers have to trudge for more than four km up and down a steep, narrow route to get potable water.

According to the Asurs – who worship the forests as a life-giving force – the big mining companies have been exploiting resources from their land but never bothered to give anything back. […]

Source: “Jharkhand’s Asur tribe losing traditional skills in modern times” by Abhishek Saha, Hindustan Times, Polpol Path (Jharkhand), 2 January 2015
Address : https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/jharkhand-s-asur-tribe-losing-traditional-skills-to-modern-times/article1-1302356.aspx#
Date Visited: 28 January 2022

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[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)
URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/history-of-it/story/ambedkar-gandhi-caste-system-poona-pact-1932-reservation-2445208-2023-10-06

~ ~ ~

“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)
URL: https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/discipline-notion-particular-government-interview-romila-thapar 

~ ~ ~

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)
URL: https://theprint.in/opinion/oprah-winfrey-wilkerson-caste-100-us-ceos-indians-wont-talk-about-it/487143/

~ ~ ~

“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2
URL: https://www.academia.edu/49963457

~ ~ ~

“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)
URL: https://vsanthakumar.wordpress.com/2024/04/13/on-the-so-called-north-south-divide-in-india/

See also

Chotanagpur | Chota Nagpur | Fact checking

Communities: Asur | Ho| Kharia | Munda | Oraon | Santal | State wise ST list (Scheduled Tribes)

Cultural heritage

Government of India

History

Hul (Santal rebellion 1855-1856) | Tribal freedom fighters

Jharkhand | Jharkhand land rights

Video | Banam: Lutes and fiddles of the Santal people – Jharkhand and West Bengal

Video | Hul Sengel: The Spirit of the Santal Revolution (1855) – Jharkhand