What is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the powerful? Language. Throughout history, we have seen how colonial powers have imposed their languages on several countries to establish their rule. Even today, after seventy-six years of gaining independence from the British Empire, we are struggling to shake off the chains of colonization. Even though the process of decolonization is underway, English remains the language of the powerful globally.
India is a vast and diverse country where over seven hundred languages are spoken. To reclaim our national identity, we are propagating more and more use of the Hindi language. In a country with so many major languages and hundreds of regional languages, it is impossible to have a national language. Instead, we should try to embody "unity in diversity", as Jawaharlal Nehru famously said, particularly when it comes to the celebration of languages in our country.
Even if we can name some of the popular languages spoken in India, how many of us know about the hundreds of indigenous languages spoken in this beautiful country by people who are as much Indian as someone living in the cities like Mumbai and Delhi and speaking fluent Hindi? This brings us to Asur Akhra Radio, whose aim is to is to popularize tribal language and culture and preserve it for future generations.
The initiative began in 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Asur Akhra Radio recognizes the cultural hegemony of majoritarian languages in India and seeks to carve out a space and identity for indigenous languages in the cultural and digital realm. What’s unique is that they broadcast their messages, which include tribal songs and stories, through a PA system without using radio frequency or mobile signals. Asur Akhra Radio broadcasts in the bazaars of the Latehar and Gumla districts, which is around 200 km from Ranchi, Jharkhand. In such a remote place, obtaining radio frequencies or mobile signal is an expensive affair. The organizers ask members of the indigenous community to record songs and stories and send them in. Using a pen drive and the collected recordings, they transfer them to the PA system, which is then carried around in the marketplaces on cycles, dump trucks, or even on the heads of people. Listening to Asur Akhra Radio brings immense joy to the community as the songs and stories resonate with their lives and struggles and also celebrate their underrepresented existence.
The naming of the radio station also has a unique story behind it. Asur is a reference to Mahisasur, a figure that is demonized in the Hindu literary canon. The world-famous Durga Puja celebrates the goddess Durga slaying Mahisasur, the demon king. What’s interesting is that Mahisasur is considered a god by the tribal communities of India. Notice, the prevalent caste hierarchy that is ingrained in the massive spectacle, that we call Durga Puja. The worshippers/ followers of Mahisasur, who are the Adivasis of India, are literally called demons in Hindu religious literature. By naming their radio, Asur Akhra Radio, they are reclaiming their identity and celebrating the figure of Mahisasur, whose descendants they proudly claim to be.
Asur Akhra Radio was founded by the Asur Adivasi Wisdom Akhra in collaboration with the Asur community of Netarhat, Jharkhand (India), and the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra. In a country where individuals from tribal communities are often hesitant to speak their own languages out of a fear of being further alienated, this initiative will go a long way to bolster their confidence, reclaim their space and foster their sense of identity.
If you enjoyed reading this, here's more from Homegrown: