Millennium Post

Tribal identity, callous bureaucracy

In the 3rd decade of 20th century, the much popular iron smelter community AGARIA was brought by the Britons from their ancestral land (name unknown) to Senduria village, a dusky hamlet in district Garwa of Jharkhand to work in the local lime-stone pit. They were enduringly shifted there but vanished their ancestral land (now under reserved forest area and restricted for any activity) forever, where once they used to obtain iron from hematite stone. Now the scions of these brave forefathers, sporadically find the dust and filth covered with some drops of smelted iron that certify the old time existence of their home, hearth and dhaunkani (furnace made of soil and stones) as well. They become poignant after seeing these relics. Oddly, now they are as like as refugees in their inherited reign.

The Agarias are a primitive tribe as mentioned in the ancient literature and research thesis but the Jharkhand state government kept aside their glorious past and even the reality of their identity and intentionally labeled them as Other Backward Class (OBC). They are initially iron-smelters from Madhya Pradesh. The Agarias have known the art of extracting iron from iron-ore for centuries. The community lives in the margins of society, reduced to being ironsmiths and agricultural labourers. But many traditions and rituals have survived the assault of modernity and their communal perception can still be seen in these.

The rights of this specific tribe, certainly, living in Naxalite-infested Garhwa district lie crushed under heaps of fastened files along with the 2003 central government order that had granted them the tribal status. The government is callous and the red liberated Naxal outfits are also insensitive over this issue. Members of the Agaria tribe, on whom renowned anthropologist Varrier Elwin has written a book (that goes by the  name The Agaria in 1942), have been running from pillar to post to be recognised as tribal, which will automatically entitle them to a range of benefits, but without any outcome.

The full name of this tribe is Asur Agaria, but in government records of Jharkhand, they are mentioned simply as ‘Agaria’. They want benefits under the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act 2006. But as the district officials did not issue tribal certificates to them, they cannot claim rights under the act. They are very deprived, and don’t get benefits under Indira Awas Yojana and other government sponsored schemes. The members of this community met district officials and top brass state bureaucrats on this concern numerous times in the past few years but regrettably nothing happened. Social scientists receive this issue as nothing but purely a misfortune and spiteful shaggy dog story with their sentiments. They mention it the government is irrationally negating the historical and even mythological facts, related to Ausurs and Agarias. So, what is the reliability for being tribal in Jharkhand – this is a question mark which is hovering around the state secretariat named Nepal House. The history of Agaria is more fascinating as their name Agaria has been derived from the Hindu goddess of fire namely Agni (the fire), which is not under the knowledge of state bureaucrats. The word Agaria possibly means a worker in aag or fire. The aag is the cause of Agni, the Hindu Goddess of fire, or of Agnyasur, the tribal demon who was born in the fire. The Agaria are known by another names, depending upon the district in which they live.  For example, those from the Maikal hill ranges of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are of Dravidian origin and are considered an offshoot of the Gond tribe that is numerically the most dominant tribe of India.

Verrier Elwin, suggests that the ‘...Agaria and the Asura are the descendants of a tribe which is represented by the Asura of Sanskrit literature and it is possible that this ancient Asur tribe invaded the Munda country in Chhota Nagapur of Jharkhand and were driven back by the Mundas, rallying under the standard of their great deity like sun named Singbonga to the very border of Bihar (now Jharkhand) and thence spread west and north through Saraguja, Dharamjaigarh, Koriya and the north of Bilaspur, a weaker branch fettering down to Raipur, until in the Maikal hills they found a congenial home and a plentiful supply of Iron. Elvin presented a map with sub-title of ‘Agaria inhabitance region’ (a region which is positioned in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and some parts of Uttar Pradesh).

Many more bureaucrats of this state, who had sociology or anthropology as their compulsory paper in civil service examination, are well known with this fact that the traditional occupations of the Agaria are iron smelting and manufacturing of agricultural implements like axes and ploughshares and sickles. They are well known with the ethnic speciality of Agarias. They are also referred to by such names as Patharia (pathar – stony or pebble rock in the rugged Rewa district), Khuntia (khunta – peg), as well as Chok and Mahali and Asur Agaria in the Bilaspur district of Madhya Pradesh.  In Sonebhadra-Mirzapur region, the south-east part of Uttar Pradesh, the Agaria are migrants from Rewa district in adjoining Madhya Pradesh, now they are again migrating in search of employment.  In the newly created state of Jharkhand, carved out of Bihar, they live in the sparsely forested areas of the mineral-rich Chotanagpur plateau while in Bihar they inhabit on the Kaimur plateau of districts Kaimur and Rohtas.

The name Agaria proper is applied rather loosely to many of the primitive iron- smelters in the central provinces, in  Rinwa state, in Mirjapur, Sarguja, Dharamjaigarh and Jashapur states, to a branch of Asurs in Ranchi and Palamu, to sections of Korwa and Binjhia in Bihar (now Jharkhand) and of Lohar in West Bengal. In the central provinces, the black-smith neighbours of the Agaria are mainly Lohar, from whom they may readily be distinguished even when, as in Raipur, they have adopted the Hindu names. The Agaria burn charcoal and extract iron from the iron-ore in small clay furnaces. It is rare for the Lohar (Hindu Black-smiths) to practice iron smelting. The Agaria use primitive types of bellows of a particular kettledrum pattern and works them with their feet, whereas the bellows used by the Lohars are worked by hands. The Agaria cover their bellows with cow-hide, which the Lohars refuse to touch.

The Agaria worship tribal Gods or Demons, who are clearly associated with the ancient Asura, such as Lohasur, Koelasur and Agnyasur. The policy makers of Jharkhand must go through the book, The Agaria by Varrier Elwin to know about the magnificent past of this community. Elvin is also inclined to the view that ‘…the traditions of the present day Asur on the hills of the borderland of Ranchi, Jashpur and Palamu appear to connect them with the Asura of Hindu mythology. The Lohar, on the other hand, worship ordinary Hindu gods and do not seem to have a special god of forge or furnace.

The Agaria have an elaborate mythology, of which the heroes are Agar Sai, Logundi Raja, Jwala Mukhi (The Rahu) and Kariya Kuar, but they are ignorant of the Hindu Vulcan, Twashtri or Vishwakarma, the artisan of the gods, who made the fiery weapon Agneyastra and revealed the Sthapatya-Veda, the science of mechanics and architecture.

The Lohar caste, on the other hand, who are unaware of the tribal heroes, obtain their caste and the profession from god Vishwakarma.

These Agarias, sons of fire, are facing vicious flame of agnipariksha (ordeal). This is topsy-turvy way of bureaucracy and labyrinth of Indian polity. The system is not responsive to the poor.

The author is a Delhi-based social activist
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