A tradition that protects nature: Why Bishnois value the blackbuck

Last Updated: Tue, Apr 10, 2018 17:55 hrs

A Bishnoi devotee, a community where farmers are supposed to give 10 % of their crops to wildlife, plays with a baby Chinkara. Image: @entergrid/Twitter

In Rajasthan, for more than 500 years, the Bishnoi community has protected and nurtured wildlife. Last week, actor Salman Khan was convicted of poaching two blackbucks; an endangered animal and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was found guilty of violating the wildlife protection act that guards the animal.

It goes back to a night on October 1, 1998, when the actor killed the animals while shooting for a film. The Bishnoi community reported this incident the next day. One eyewitness of the community provided testimony against the actor which played a crucial role in the conviction. The actor has been in trouble regarding killing of animals before. He was convicted of killing chinkaras in Bhawad and Mathania villages but was later acquitted by the Rajasthan high court.

The Bishnoi community is a sub sect of Hindus and believes in protecting the ecosystem and all living things. A group called the Bishnoi Tiger Force has registered over 400 cases against poaching in the western Rajasthan area. They not only see the protection of endangered animals as a matter of environmental responsibility, but it is a part of their religious tradition. As Adrija Roychowdhury, in a piece for the Indian Express points out –

In the last 20 years, as the legal system prolonged the judgment for the case, the Bishnoi community continued to battle, pressuring the establishment to work in favor of wildlife rights”.

For the Bishnoi, bringing justice to the chinkaras and blackbucks allegedly killed by Khan and his colleagues was not just a matter of environmental responsibility, but also something that was part of their religious tradition”.

With regards to this case in particular, one of the eyewitnesses, Poonamchand Bishnoi claims to have witnessed the killing of the two blackbucks by Salman Khan at the urging of his co-stars, who were acquitted in the case. The Bishnoi community welcomed the verdict, but after the actor was granted bail, the community said they seek to appeal the decision.

There are an estimated 50 million Bishnois spread across north India but mostly concentrated in Rajasthan. Rampal Bhawad, the state president of the aforementioned Bishnoi Tiger Force, which was established in 1995, states that the community follows its founder Guru Jambheshwar’s 29 tenets, which include compassion towards animals and plants. They have been diligent in reporting poaching incidents and attempts to the relevant wildlife authorities. The Tiger Force is a 1000-strong brigade of young people who are passionate about wildlife protection. They are spread across hundreds of villages across Rajasthan.

One member of the Bishnoi community, RK Bishnoi, in an op-ed, details the reason why his community stood up to the stardom of a famous actor in this poaching case –

Those who filed the case against Salman and demanded justice were ordinary farmers, without political connections, support and money to spare. Along with their daily struggle to make ends meet, it certainly is no mean task to spend time, energy, and resources for wildlife protection”.

As a part of Bishnoi philosophy is forgiveness, this time around, there was no signal to forgive the actor as he did not forgive himself, so the Bishnoi community did not as well. In the past, however, the Bishnois have forgiven hunters/poachers, and let them off with a nominal fine.

Despite continued pressure, coercion, temptation of bribes, and even threats from political and bureaucratic authorities to withdraw their case against Salman, the gumption and moral rectitude of the Bishnois, and their respect for their guru Jambhoji, made them committed to the cause”.

In the fifteenth century, Jambhoji, a resident of a village near Jodhpur, had a vision that the cause of the drought that had hit the area and hardship that followed was caused by people’s interference with nature. He later came to be known as Swami Jambeshwar Maharaj, who laid down 29 tenets for his followers which included a ban on killing animals. This is where the community derives its name - bish (20), noi (9).

One instance of the Bishnoi community’s dedication to protect wildlife that was recognized happened in 2000. On August 12, Ganga Ram Bishnoi chased some hunters who had killed a chinkara and was shot dead. In 2003, he was posthumously awarded the inaugural Amrita Devi Bishnoi National Award for Wildlife Conservation for his efforts by then Union Environment and Forests Minister, T.R. Baalu. The award itself is named after Amrita Devi Bishnoi who had sacrificed her life along with 363 others for the protection of khejri tree in Rajasthan more than 250 years ago at the time.

The Bishnois are protective of the land they live on. The Salman Khan case is testament to their dedication in making sure justice is brought upon those who kill endangered species, especially in and around the areas they live. With regards to this case, in the days after the killings, they held demonstrations in Jodhpur demanding justice.

The case spanned over two decades as the legal system prolonged the judgment. The Bishnoi community however, continued to fight and pressured the authorities to work in favor of wildlife rights. Out of the 29 tenets that the Bishnoi community live by, eight were about protecting the environment that included the prohibition against the killing of animals and prohibition against cutting down of trees.

Purely from an outsider’s point of view, the spirit and determination of the Bishnoi community is admirable in their pursuit of protecting wildlife and nature; even if it is entwined in religious teachings. Their relentlessness in the face of opposition in the Salman Khan case is proof.

More columns by Varun Sukumar