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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 33, August 9, 2014

Tribal Identity and Callous Bureaucracy: Violation of Centre’s Notification of 2003

Friday 8 August 2014, by Amarendra Kishore

In the third decade of the 20th century, the much popular iron-smelter community of 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 limestone pit. They were enduringly shifted there but their ancestral land (now under a reserved forest area where any activity is restricted) vanished forever; from that area they once used to obtain iron from hematite stone. Now the scions of these brave forefathers sporadically find the dust and filth-covered 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, they are now like refugees in their inherited domain.

The Agarias are a primitive tribe as men-tioned in ancient literature and research thesis but the Jharkhand State Government kept from them their glorious past and even the reality of their identity and intentionally labelled them as belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC). They were initially iron-smelters from Madhya Pradesh, Central India. 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 perceptions can still be seen in these.

The rights of this specific tribe, living in the Naxalite-infested Garhwa district, certainly lie crushed under heaps of fastened files along with the 2003 Central Government order that had granted them the tribal status.1 The government is callous and the liberated red Naxal outfits are also insensitive to this issue. Members of the Agaria tribe, on whom renowned anthropologist Varrier Elwin had written a book (that goes by the name The Agaria in 1942), have been running from pillar to post to be recognised as tribals, 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 the 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 the Indira Awas Yojana and other government sponsored schemes. The members of this community met district officials and top-brass of the State bureaucracy on this issue on numerous occasions in the past few years but regrettably nothing has happened till date. Social scientists have received this news as a pure case of misfortune. They point out that the government was irrationally negating the historical and even mythological facts related to Asurs and Agarias. So, what is the credibility of being a tribal in Jharkhand?—this is a question which is hovering over the State Secretariat called Nepal House.

The history of the Agarias is more fascinating as their name Agaria has been derived from the Hindu goddess of fire, namely, Agni (the fire),2 which is not in the knowledge of the 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 Agarias are known by other 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 considered an offshoot of the Gond tribe that is numerically the most dominant tribe of India.3

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 Sarguja, Dharamjaigarh, Koriya and the north of Bilas-pur, a weaker branch fettering down to Raipur, until in the Maikal hills they found a congenial home and a plentiful supply of Iron.” Elwin presented a map with the sub-title of ‘Agaria inhabitance region’ (a region which is located in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and some parts of Uttar Pradesh).

Many bureaucrats of this State, who had sociology or anthropology as their compulsory paper in the Civil Service Examination, are well aware of the fact that the traditional occupations of the Agarias are iron-smelting and manufac-turing agricultural implements like axes and ploughshares and sickles. They know well the ethnic specialities of the 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 the Sonebhadra-Mirzapur region, in south-east Uttar Pradesh, the Agarias are migrants from the 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 populated forest areas of the mineral-rich Chotanagpur plateau while in Bihar they inhabit the Kaimur plateau of districts Kaimur and Rohtas.

The name Agaria was applied rather loosely to many of the primitive iron-smelters in the Central Provinces, in Rinwa state, in Mirzapur, Sarguja, Dharamjaigarh and Jashpur 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.4 In the Central Provinces, the black-smith neighbours of the Agarias are mainly Lohars, from whom they may readily be distinguished as the latter have, even in Raipur, adopted Hindu names. The Agarias burn charcoal and extract iron from the iron-ore in small clay furnaces.5 It is rare for the Lohar (Hindu black-smith) to practise iron-smelting. The Agarias use primitive types of bellows of a particular kettledrum pattern and work those with their feet, whereas the bellows used by the Lohars are worked by hands. The Agarias cover their bellows with cow-hide, which the Lohars refuse to touch.6

The Agarias worship tribal gods or demons, who are clearly associated with the ancient Asura, such as Lohasur, Koelasur and Agnya-sur.7 The policy-makers of Jharkhand must go through the book The Agaria by Varrier Elwin to know about the magnificent past of this community. Elwin was 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.”8

The Agarias 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.9

The Lohar caste, on the other hand, are unaware of the tribal heroes, and obtained their caste and profession from god Vishwakarma. Another attractive point in the legends is that whereas the Lohars maintain that their ances-tors helped the Pandavas with their weapons, in the Agaria legend it was the Pandavas who attacked and destroyed their iron city Lohitpur and the old kingdom of Raja Logundi.10 Other stories describe that the iron-city was destroyed by the Hindu solar deity Narayan Deo or Suraj Deo that spontaneously proves that the Hindus or Aryans were enemy of the Agaria people. Here the Agaria hero, Jwala Mukhi, plays the part of Rahu (the Asur) and swallows the Sun, the prime deity of the Hindus. Finally it is generally possible to distinguish an Agaria from a Lohar by looking at him.

Curiously, the Lohar caste, non-tribals in Bihar and Jharkhand, obtain certificates declaring them as tribals. And they seem to do that without much difficulty. Interestingly, there is one tribe called Lohara in these States. The Lohars confuse in the pronunciation of “Lohar” and “Lohara”. Since the District Welfare Department has the authority to issue tribal certificates, and is unaware of this accent-difference and also having ambiguity in information and knowledge, many Lohar applicants got caste certificates as tribals, thereby gaining heavily. Later, this was unearthed and they were penalised. So, the government asserted that the Lohars were not tribals but simple ironsmiths whereas the Agarias were iron-smelters.

Another interesting part of the tribal culture, which is already documented and gathering dust in the Jharkhand Tribal Research Institute (JTRI) in Ranchi, is that the Agarias usually do not burn the dead, and even now they bury their dead. But the State Government is not ready to accept them as “aboriginals” and has turned a deaf ear to listen to the pain of the Asurs, the real and original Indians. Apart from the 1000-odd families in Garhwa, Agarias are also found in certain areas of Chhattisgarh, which shares its border with the district. The Agarias in Chhattisgarh have been already given tribal status following the Centre’s notification in 2003 but the Jharkhand Government is yet to follow suit. However, on January 7, 2003, the Union Government had issued the particular notification to the States, asking them to add the prefix Agaria to Asur, which already enjoys tribal status. Thus, Agarias were accorded the status of tribals in 2003 itself.

The Union Government had even sent letters to the Deputy Commissioners, attaching the documents and asking them to follow the new order. But the order was forgotten due to bureaucratic bottlenecks.11 Really these Agarias, sons of fire, are facing the vicious flames of agnipariksha (ordeal). This is the topsy-turvy way of bureaucratie functroning in the labyrinth of Indian polity. The system is not responsive to the poor.


1. The Telegraph: A Report by Santosh Kiro

2. The Agaria by Varrier Elwin.

3. Ranchi District Gazetter by Sir M.G. Hallet, Patna 1918.

4. The Asurs: Ancient and Modern by S.C.Rai

5. Report of P.N. Bose.]

6. The Agaria by Varrier Elwin.

7. The Agaria by Varrier Elwin.

8. The Asurs:Ancient and Modern by S.C.Rai, Vol XII

9. Indian Mythology: A. Beriadalay Keith.

10. The Agaria by Varrier Elwin.

11. The Telegraph: A Report by Santosh Kiro.

 The author is a Delhi-based free-lance journalist. He can be contacted at amarendra.kishore@gmail.com