Wildlife & Biodiversity

The power of community

The role of the Bishnois in sending Salman Khan to jail is a shining instance of the power of community participation in conservation

By Prahlad Singh Shekhawat
Last Updated: Thursday 19 April 2018
A Bishnoi woman petting a Kid     Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Bishnoi woman petting a Kid     Credit: Wikimedia Commons A Bishnoi woman petting a Kid Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The case and conviction against Bollywood star Salman Khan for poaching antelope in Jodhpur has been hailed not only by wildlife enthusiasts but also by those who are worried that big stars and others with money power can get away using money and muscle power to browbeat witnesses as well as by peddling untruths.

Salman Khan had almost got away. Except that in this case, he did not know the antelope species he shot is considered as the living incarnation of the Guru of the Bishnoi sect. Had it not been for the dogged and sustained pressure maintained by the Bishnois for religious reasons, Salman Khan may have had a better chance to fake innocence and get away unapprehended.  

The conviction for poaching in spite of Salman Khan’s appeal has to be understood in the cultural and religious context of Jodhpur and its villages, which, in many cases, are inhabited by the Bishnoi community. Animal life, plants and trees are sacred for the Bishnois, who have a long tradition of risking their lives in order to nurture and protect them. It may appear strange to many outside Rajasthan, but is actually not surprising for those who know the Marwar region that for the killing of a few small antelope, there was a huge outrage and mobilisation among the Bishnois to get the poachers punished and make an example of Salman Khan.

The Bishonis inhabit western Rajasthan and parts of Haryana and Punjab. In 1542 AD, Guru Jamboji (or Jambeshwar), while forming the new sect, laid out twenty-nine tenets, of which, eight relate to preservation of bio-diversity, non-felling of green trees and non-killing of animals particularly antelope. Black bucks are considered the manifestation of Jamboji and are especially sacred. Bishnois do not keep goats and sheep because of their habit of over-grazing. They bury their dead so that no wood is used. Usually, they cultivate a single seasonal crop so that the soil enriches itself. Their environment-friendly lifestyle, governed by religious tenets, makes them more prosperous than other communities in the region.

In 1786, when the then-Maharaja of Jodhpur ordered trees to be cut in order to build his palace, the Bishnois resisted by hugging Khejri trees and 363 of them, including many women, were said to have perished in Khejarli village near Jodhpur. The repentant Maharaja apologised and decreed that no trees would be cut and no antelope would be killed in Bishnoi villages. The Bishnoi resistance to protect the environment at that early stage of human history is considered the first environmental movement in the world, inspiring the Chipko and other similar movements later.  

If you happen to visit the Jodhpur and Bikaner districts of western Rajasthan, which are arid and semi arid, you can easily make out Bishnoi villages by the large number of trees, green bushes, and antelope and deer grazing nearby. Bishnoi women are known to have breast-fed orphan antelope babies. The conviction of Salman Khan may not have been possible without the sustained public pressure lead by the Bishnois. A Bishnoi leader, Raja Ram Dharidiya, had earlier complained that the police and other officials did not cooperate in the way they had promised and the Bishnoi community was virtually alone in combating the destruction of wildlife in the region.  

The Salman Khan poaching case is significant for the lessons it offers for environmentalists and for framing policies for wildlife preservation. The disappearance of tigers from the Sariska Tiger Reserve near Alwar in Rajasthan had triggered off a national debate on how to prevent wildlife poaching. One view laid emphasis on beefing up security. The second approach pointed out the need for carrying out conservation based on community participation. The manner in which the Bishnois sustained pressure on the authorities in Jodhpur culminating in the conviction of Salman Khan shows that a community steeped in cultural values of conservation can easily be mobilised or self-mobilise and therefore, can be very effective in the preservation of wildlife and nature.

Even when the communities do not have such religious and cultural values like the Bishnois, they can still develop a stake in conservation due to tangible economic benefits accruing to them and thereby participate effectively. The case of Adivasis is complex because of their daily struggle for survival in forests and the underlying machinations of timber merchants and forest department officials. Yet, more community participation by Adivasis—with their favourable cultural tenets helping to formulate forest policies in conjunction with not only the administration but also with grassroots civil society orgnisations—and the sustainable use of forest produce for the tribal people’s benefit is worth considering as a policy measure in order to provide livelihoods without causing harm to forests. Such a form of community participation sometimes based on religious and cultural values to preserve wildlife and their habitats as well as forests depends also on proper skill development and rehabilitation of tribals so that they can both, preserve wildlife and harness forest produce without exploiting it in a unsustainable and greedy manner.    

When Salman Khan went out to hunt like a hero of a Bollywood film in the Jodhpur village, he should have been more humble and respected the sacredness which the Bishnois attach to the Black buck and Chinkara. It was like going to a place of worship and committing sacrilege and was therefore inexcusable. This is not dissimilar to the forests, rivers, mountains and the pristine tribal land and the way they are seen as sacred by forest-dwelling communities and its degradation by big corporations and/or contractors and their insensitivity towards the spiritual sentiments of the tribals. This can rouse the tribals to defend their natural resources and themselves against the onslaughts of money and political power.

Perhaps, we in India need to move away from considering a few areas, trees, water bodies, land, mountains and animals as “sacred”, towards considering the whole of Mother Nature as worth preserving and move towards a more internalised culture of preservation of the natural environment so that everyone becomes a kind of Bishnoi.

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