The Asurs’ remembrance of their ancestors: A ‘particularly vulnerable’ tribal group – Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh & West Bengal

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Chamru is an Asur, a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ that dominates Sakhuapani’s population of about 2,000 and lives in villages spread over a radius of 10 to 20 km. Besides Jharkhand, members of the tribe live in pockets of Bihar, West Bengal and a few other states. The 2011 Census put the number of Asurs at 22,459 in Jharkhand and 4,129 in Bihar.

The Asurs claim to be descendants of Mahishasur, the buffalo-demon whom Goddess Durga kills after a spirited fight lasting nine nights. It’s this mythology in mainstream Hinduism that’s celebrated in the form of the nine-day-long Durga Puja, but observed as ‘Mahishasur Dasain’ among the Asurs, who hold a period of mourning during which they largely stay indoors.

Chamru says that even when he was a child, though people had their beliefs and biases, nobody attacked them for it, they merely thought they were different. “Those were the days of zamindari. The zamindar of Bishunpur (now the local police station) would ask us to get wood and collect leaves for making pattals for the puja. We would go there, give the zamindar all this and also give him some of our tools. We would then return home before the celebrations began and offer prayers seeking protection from our own ancestors,” says Chamru.

Now as these cultures are seen as offending, Chamru says these are “just beliefs”. “I have heard we are descendants of Mahishasur. That’s all I can tell you. I can’t tell you how our descendants settled down in this part of the country and so on,” he says. […]

Asurs, she says, were once iron smelters, but now the village doesn’t have a smelting unit. Chamru says he used to make small weapons, “but I have forgotten all that now”. According to one of the theories, the Magadh Empire benefited a lot from the weapons the Asurs made. “Their iron does not catch rust. And we know there are many Ashokan-era edicts on iron that haven’t rusted,” says Ashwani Kumar Pankaj, a tribal activist in Ranchi.

Traditionally, Asurs don’t drink cow milk. “We want the calf to have all the milk and grow up strong so that it can be used in the fields,” says Anil Asur, Sushma’s brother. Villagers still don’t drink much milk or tea, happy instead to down a glass of rice beer. […]

Bargi belongs to a group of about 1,000 Asurs, who moved from Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh in the early 20th Century and work and live near the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri. “My father moved here in 1914 to work for a British tea planter. We have lived here ever since. It’s been more than a century now,” he says.

Jagannath Singh, 67, a social worker who used to work as a primary school teacher at the Carron tea estate school, says the story of the Asurs is like that of most other ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups‘ of the country, but with a “cruel twist”. “Apart from abject poverty, they also have to deal with social stigma. The Asurs in Jalpaiguri were recognised as a Scheduled Tribe only in 2014, after years of struggle,” says Singh. […]

Source: “Meet the Asurs — a marginal tribe that describes Durga as a goddess who enticed Mahishasur” by Prashant Pandey & Premankur Biswas, Indian Express, December 8, 2016
Date Visited: 21 February 2021

While recent instances of religious intolerance and bigotry may have shocked many, data on Indian attitudes and behaviours – particularly among young people – show that these attitudes are the mainstream, and not the fringe.

For some time now, Indians have held fairly conservative views about how the country should be governed in broad terms. The World Values Survey, a conglomerate of various country-level polling agencies, has surveyed sample populations around the world on their views on various social values for nearly forty years. In the latest round (2010–2014), the Indian sample demonstrated a lower commitment to democratic principles than most other major countries. […]

The highest proportion of respondents with this majoritarian nationalist position were those with a graduate or postgraduate education. […]

This is not a ‘liberal’ country, nor do most Indians likely see liberalism as a virtue. Under 17 per cent of respondents in a nationally representative survey described themselves as ‘modern’—this included just 16 per cent of the youngest respondents. A majority of all respondents, young or old, rural or urban, uneducated or graduates, described themselves as ‘traditional’ (as per Lok Foundation/ University of Oxford – CMIE Lok Survey Pulse II).

There was once perhaps an assumption that education and urbanisation would automatically drive change towards more liberal values in India. But it no longer seems as if these transformations are inevitable. The education level or wealth of respondents had little impact on the likelihood of experiencing social bias according to a recent survey.

Source: Book excerpt from Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India by Rukmini S. in “Liberals are really India’s fringe: What a new book on data says”
Date Visited: 25 April 2022

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

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Whether you plan a visit or seek to learn more about India’s rural life – perhaps inspired by the Gandhian social movement or Rabindranath Tagore – explore “a living journal, a breathing archive” in the Adivasi category of PARI: the People’s Archive of Rural India initiated by distinguished photo journalist-turned-activist P. Sainath, continually enriched by stories from all over India.

“In less than 200 years, photography has gone from an expensive, complex process to an ordinary part of everyday life. From selfies to satellites, most of the technology we use and spaces we inhabit rely on cameras. […] While photographic documentation can aid in shaping history, it can also be a window into the horrors of the past.” – Read more or listen to Butterfly Effect 9 – The Camera on CBC Radio Spark 26 May 2023 >>

A Nomad Called Thief:
Reflections on Adivasi Silence and Voice by Ganesh [G.N.] Devy | Publications >>

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