In 1730, the Bishnois of Rajasthan’s Marwar region sacrificed their lives to saves their trees. According to the community, the king of Jodhpur had ordered the cutting down of Khejri trees in the region. Following his order, soldiers marched upon Khejarli village—where they faced resistance from a Bishnoi woman. Her name was Amrita Devi.
A tree-hugging Devi told the soldiers that they’d have to kill her first before they chopped off even one of the trees. On the orders of the commander, she and her two daughters were killed as they refused to let go of the Khejris.
This is from where the Bishnoi community’s famous Chipko movement originated.
The sacrifices made by the community continued until the message finally reached the king and he personally intervened to stop the massacre. However, by then, a total of 363 Bishnois from 84 kheda (old villages) had already laid down their lives to save the trees.
But why talk about the incident now?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Jodhpur on December 3 and cheered the Bishnois for their contribution towards the environment. Those from the community who were present in the rally roared at this reference. In his speech, PM Modi said the tag of “Champion of the Earth” given by the United Nations to India has been made possible only because of sacrifices made by communities such as the Bishnois.
Jodhpur has 10 assembly seats. It is believed that the Bishnoi community has influence over at least 200 villages located in these constituencies. While the Congress has fielded two candidates from this community, the BJP has one Bishnoi candidate in the electoral race. “We are thankful that PM Modi referred to our community and praised our effort. But his words must translate into action too,” says 23-year-old Raju Benniwal. He is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker and is pursuing a Masters Degree in political science. “The martyrdom spot of our 363 heroes needs to be developed into a memorial. Conserving the history and pride of the Bishnoi’s sacrifice is important.” He goes on to suggest that just like Yogi Adityanath has been changing the names of cities, Jodhpur should be renamed after Amrita Devi.
A painting depicting the sacrifice of Amrita Devi and her two daughters.
The community had built the temple of Guru Jambeshwar in Khejarli village where the martyrdom of the Bishnois had occurred. Now, they are building a grand stone temple right behind the old one.
Here’s a quick reminder: This is the same community which led to the arrest, and later conviction, of Bollywood star Salman Khan. Kankani— the village where a Blackbuck was hunted down by Khan and his co-convicts—is located roughly a few kilometres from here.
During the course of the conversation, the youth from the community reinstated that there is one thing that has not changed over centuries among the Bishnois: their love for the environment.
Thirty-three-year-old Gordhan Ram says: “Even today, the youth of this [Bishnoi] community would die to save a tree or a deer. The spirit of conserving wildlife runs in our blood.” He claims that the youth follows the 29 rules given by their Guru.
However, others like Raju and Subash Bishnoi say that if the elected government does end up cutting down trees in the name of “development”, the resistance towards it won’t be so fierce. It is safe to say that it wouldn’t have anywhere close to the effect Amrita Devi had on the king of Jodhpur. “In name of development industrial corridors (RIICO), the Rajasthan government felled trees in this belt. All we could and can do is protest against such moves,” says Subhash Bishnoi. Raju adds, “The elected government have both—power and rules on their sides. They can use the laws to hit out at the environment.”
Twenty-year-old Swaroop Benniwal shows the Khejri tree located inside the Khejarali temple compound. The tree has changed its shape after the sacrifice of Amrita Devi. He points at the patterns on the tree and explains the imagery, saying the tree has the shape of a beheaded woman where one can spot the neck, the waist, the traditional Bishnoi dress and two feet.
The Khejri tree located inside the Khejarali temple compound.
The community appears to be irked with the present Bharatiya Janata Party leadership (BJP) in the state. The sitting BJP MLA Jogaram Patel had promised the construction of a road inside the temple compound, but this never happened. Even the former environment minister had made promises which have not yet been fulfilled during Vasundhara Raje’s tenure.
Moreover, the environmental policy of the Raje government troubles the Bishnoi community. “We could have awarded them [government] a pass or fail—but that is if they had tried to do anything about it in the first place. For five years, the environment ministry was an absentee ministry,” says 35-year-old Swroop Ram Potliya. He has been a part of the RSS for the last eight years. Potliya points out that there exists no concrete policy to conserve the Blackbucks and other antelopes in the region. “Even the ambulance used to rescue deer who have been injured in road accidents doesn’t reach on time. Often, by the time locals carry them to the hospital—they die.”
According to a forest official from the area, nearly 1,500 antelopes, including Blackbucks, live between Guda village and Kankani of Jodhpur.
Blackbucks often come to the pond located in Guda’s Biodiversity Park.
The community elders say that they have stopped inviting incumbent Environment Minister Gajendra Singh to the annual congregation of Bishnois which marks their ancestral martyrdom. Singh is a politician and well-known known hotelier in Rajasthan. The Bishnois fear the fact that Singh’s hotel serves non-vegetarian food. “In his hotel, he [Singh] serves non-vegetarian food. How can we trust him with forming environment policies?” questions Swaroop.
The Bishnoi community’s demand for reservation or preference for their youth when it comes to the Forest Department recruitment stems from this logic itself. “If you are a non-vegetarian, you are not fit for the job. You may end up hunting the forest animals,” claims Sohan Bishno (30), the chairperson of the local biodiversity committee. “We have been demanding 50 per cent reservation for Bishnoi youth in Forest Department jobs because we understand the environment. Conserving it is in our DNA.” He adds that the community has been working for ages towards saving the endangered Blackbuck species, conserving trees, and has been taking part in voluntary plantation drives—all of it without a salary. He argues that this factor, by default, should make a Bishnoi the first choice when it comes to Forest Department jobs.
Indeed, the Bishnois do follow a handful of distinct practices. Unlike other Hindu cultures, they don’t burn the dead from their community as it would lead to the felling of trees and, consequently, pollution. Instead, they bury the dead. Even for havan (holy fire), coconut and cow ghee is used as they believe this purifies the air. Don’t be surprised if you ever happen across a Bishnoi carrying a deer to the hospital or performing the last rites of the dead ones. This is a daily part of their lives.
The Bishnois voluntarily carry out the last rites of dead deer
Like any other community, caste discrimination runs deep in the Bishnoi community too. Community elderly say Dalits are not allowed inside the main temple. However, the youth try to justify it by saying that the ban is on non-vegetarians or those who don’t follow the 29 rules of their spiritual Guru. Notably, this could affect their voting pattern in this poll too.
“Caste will be a deciding factor in the polls. Ninety per cent of Bishnois would vote for Bishnoi candidates from BJP-Congress in their respective areas,” believes Gordhan Ram.
Ever since 2014, the RSS has expanded exponentially in Bishnoi-dominated villages. This also brings out the organisation’s effect on the community. The elderly, those like Sohan Bishnoi, believe that the Bishnois are different from regular Hindus, whereas the brigade which frequents the Shakhas rejects this theory. “RSS’s social engineering practices will end these differences,” Potliya says. According to him and Gordhan Ram, around 30-35 per cent of Bishnoi youth have started attending Shakhas in the last four years.
However, this has failed to address the simmering anger against the incumbent Raje government and its MLAs. “Our anger is not directed towards PM Modi but against the local MLAs and the BJP government in the state,” said an elder from the community.
Notably, what continues to irk the community the most is the apathy of all political parties towards their contribution made to the environment. “No party in power has acknowledged the martyrdom of the Bishnois the way they should have. The killing of 363 Bishnois is a blot on the face of the Jodhpur kingdom, hence, they do not want our heroic stories to go out,” says Sohan Benniwal. “The royal family continues to wield power in both the parties.”
While the Bishnois form an influencing vote bank in the Jodhpur region, their identity is limited merely to a regular caste-based vote bank. But whether their demand for reservation in forest Department jobs will be taken seriously, let alone fulfilled, is yet to be seen.