The Bishnoi community is often called the protector of wildlife and environment in western Rajasthan, at times going to extreme lengths for their cause.
A Bishnoi Woman. ‘Conserve the environment’ - for us Bishnois, this message runs in our bloodstream. Photo: Zenit / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Our country has a lot to learn from the intricate web of communities that weave the fabric of Hindustan as a nation, one of such communities are the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan.
The Bishnoi community is often called the protector of wildlife and environment in western Rajasthan, at times going to lengths for their cause. Bishnoism, as a sect, has 29 tenets that its followers are expected to abide by — refraining from cutting of green trees is one of them.
The Chipko movement of Uttarakhand that we know today is a movement inspired by one of the women belonging to the Bishnoi community itself, her name remains immortal within the community to this day - Amrita Devi Bishnoi.
History has it that the King of Marwar back in the year 1730 had assigned a royal troop to cut some Khejri trees from the present day Khejrali Village. The orders were met by a strong act of defiance - Amrita Devi along with her three daughters hugged the trees to save them, and in response got paid with their heads being severed.
The story does not end here, more people from the community joined the rebellion, leading to the massacre of 363 people.
Shocked, the king’s troops finally relented, and this episode went on to cement and strengthen further the Bishnoi community’s name as the protector of environment.
One of the more well-known cases that catapulted them to fame was when the community followed the case of Bollywood actor Salman Khan who is allegedly reported to have killed two blackbucks during a movie shoot near Jodhpur in 1998, which after 20 long years, finally resulted in Khan being sentenced by a local court.
Going to court and using laws that are in place to fight for wildlife and the environment has become common for the Bishnoi community, said Ramniwas Bishnoi, who was the general secretary of the (BTF) until recently.
Talking about the significance of such efforts from a personal point of view, Ramniwas said that it was the Salman Khan case that became a tipping point for many like him. “After that incident, there was a realisation that we have to organise ourselves to fight our own fight,” he said, “Henceforth Bishnoi Tiger Force (BTF) was formed and I became actively involved with it.”
One of the issues the group took up a few months back was when a government order said that trees alongside a road near Jodhpur had to be cut because it may interfere with the overhead electric lines. A Bishnoi village along that road refused the order, saying that the tree-cutting was “unnecessary” and sat in protest along with the BTF members. “Finally we saved the trees along 30 kms of the road that led right to the village. They had to give in,” Ramniwas said.
The community also works closely with the forest department, tipping them off about poachers and those “hunting for pleasure”— the latter, said Ramniwas, spike during the winter months, when it’s the tourist season in Rajasthan. “We register four-five cases ever month with the forest department during the tourist season,” he said, “Law enforcement in the forest department is weak, but the community is vigilant. We have helped catch many a rich and powerful on the wrong side of the law — even some police and forest officials.”
Law and order aside, the Bishnoi community has also played an active role in the setting up of rescue centres for injured animals in villages in western Rajasthan and had even donated a vehicle to Jodhpur’s Machia Biological Park Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre to bring in rescued animals swiftly.
Dr. Shravan Singh, a veterinarian at the animal rescue centre, said, “More than 70 percent of the injured animals brought to the rescue centre are by the Bishnoi community. When informed, our vehicle goes and picks up the animal, but it is also very common for them to arrange for their own vehicle to bring the animal.” Dog bites, the doctor said, are the most common cause of injury and can be very severe. There were chinkaras, black bucks, blue bulls, and a variety of birds when we visited the centre; occasionally, leopards, hyenas and wolves are also rescued and later rehabilitated.
“Jeev Raksha (protecting creatures) is ingrained in us; no one has to teach it to a Bishnoi child, they learn it by seeing,” said Kiran Bishnoi Khokhar, a resident of Tilwasni village.
“The thing is, while conservation is taught to others, for our community, it is a way of life,” Manju Vishnoi said, “For our women, the day begins with putting out a bowl of food for the birds. Our farmers keep aside a sack of their harvest—wheat or bajra—for the birds every year and it is common to see deer, peafowl, flock in hundreds near the ponds and temples of our villages early in the morning. For us, therefore, any injustice meted to a life-form cannot be tolerated and we will protect it, even at the cost of our lives.”
Even as fears of possible food shortages loom in the country due to the ongoing extended lockdown, the Bishnoi community in Rohicha Kalla, a small village about 40 kms from Jodhpur in Rajasthan remains self-sufficient - with farm produce of wheat of their own and a year-old dry stock of Sangri, a fruit borne by the Khejri trees, which can be made into a curry.
“The Khejri trees have sustained us in droughts and they will save us now,” Manju Vishnoi, the sarpanch of the village said. “This outbreak is nature’s way of telling, ‘Conserve the environment’. For us Bishnois, this message runs in our bloodstream.