Newer environmental trends within the Bishnoi community
‘Bishnoi-sm’ as a sect and its ecological traditions have been documented in various studies but, of late, a series of sustained, interconnected and planned protest action has emanated from the community. Observable in local actions, practices and discourses on ground since the late 1990s, this form of protest politics, though rarely analysed in social movements debates in India, is clearly termed as andolan (movement) by those who wage it (qualitative data collected during July-August 2012, July 2013, December 2013 and December 2018).
Newer forms of protest
These newer trends of protest have a face and a name in the shape of an organisation called the Bishnoi Tiger Force (BTF) in the Thar Desert. It operates in desert jungles of western Rajasthan which form the biggest desert in India. In its collective action, as per my research findings, the BTF is a prototype of conservation politics which extends beyond the realms of religion. Rather, it spreads over to a socio-political arena to dialogue with the Rajasthan state and stakes a claim in its democratic procedures (Luthra Sinha 2014; 2016). The broader aims as well the work accomplished by the BTF is twofold:
- To conserve the Thar, just as the rest of the Bishnoi community does, as part of its imbibed customs and religious routines (explained in detail in various other parts of this module).
- To check environmental crimes in the arid terrain for the purpose of which it dialogues with wildlife administration (examples are given below) and India’s environmental laws (see interviews with BTF activists, administrators, specialists including legal experts and scholars in the documentaries included in this module).
While it is true that the Bishnoi community has devised newer bodies such as the Akhil Bhartiya Jeev Raksha Bishnoi Sabha (ABJRBS), its modus operandi differs from the BTF. The ABJRBS was formed by the community’s main body in 1975 (Jain 2010:70). The BTF was informally started by a group of young Bishnoi activists in 1999 and finally registered in 2007.
Shivraj Bishnoi from Bikaner (interviews and group discussions, July 2012; December 2014; January 20, 2018), who is the ABJRBS chief for the state of Rajasthan, explains that the organisation is an assembly of people inclined towards the maintenance of religious traditions with reference to nature and draws a predominant inspiration from Bishnoi eco-dharma. The ABJRBS, he explains, is part of the larger Bishnoi society and looks after the issue of wildlife protection all over India on behalf of the Bishnoi community. It carries out welfare functions on behalf of the Bishnoi community. It also facilitates and takes a lead in endeavours towards conserving the environment: building parks as well as organising animal and plant life protection schemes in areas where the community lives. Each state in India has its own chief, who represents the organisation.
The BTF, on the other hand, has its epicentre in Jodhpur and usually operates in western parts of western Rajasthan. It operates as a social movement dedicated to taking and following up protest politics over environmental protection and crimes. The current BTF president, Rampal Bhavad, has been its chief since the organisation came into being informally in 1999 in the aftermath of the Salman Khan poaching case in 1998 (Indian Express 2016). It continued to evolve and be active thereafter. In 2007, it was registered formally as an NGO. Once formed, one of its very prominent volunteer, Ram Niwas Bishnoi from Budhnagar rose to the position of General Secretary and remained at the position for more than a decade. Both Bhavad and Ram Niwas are now members of the Bishnoi Mahasabha from Mukam.
Community support for both trends
The Bishnoi community supports and endorses the social and protest movements of the BTF externally, while the ABJRBS functions as an internal part of the community’s formal setup. The ABJRBS is directly inclined towards the Bishnoi religion as the basis for most of its activities all over India. Unlike ABJRBS, the BTF practices an organic and embedded politics of protest in western Rajasthan. It brings to light and foils incidents of poaching, facilitates rescue operations and hobnobs with the media, administration, police and wildlife departments to negotiate the public sphere and raise its voice. BTF has a vast and intense information network spread over western Rajasthan. Its volunteers spring into action in defence of wildlife as soon as BTF locates/is informed of the sites of poaching or cases of injured birds and animals.
Conversely, the organisation provides full support to members and volunteers when they inform it of an incident in their areas. When needed and asked by the police to do so, BTF volunteers also become its informants to help the administration trace the routes of crime in the Thar.
Nuanced similarities and distinctions between BTF and ABJRBS
Two partial similarities shared by these organisations is that both participate in protests but mostly it is BTF that is likely to initiate organised protests regularly. Similarly, both organisations promote and coordinate welfare activities such as providing financial help to families of martyrs who die while protecting the environment. The ABJRBS focusses on community traditions of philanthropy and welfare activities such as establishing community parks. Being a part of the official bodies that pertain to the Bishnoi community directly, the ABJRBS considers it a social responsibility to draw on and strengthen the principles of the sect. The BTF, on the other hand, while participating and giving a hand to various kinds of welfare ventures (see interview videos in this module), relies more on public meetings, processions, protests, memorandums and petitions.
Spearheading campaigns and collective action against crime in pursuit of justice, the BTF remains an independent protest movement, though it is also registered as an NGO. It perceives itself as a movement for wildlife protection and sustainable ecology. Sharing and abiding by concerns forwarded by the Bishnoi religion, the BTF does not accrue from it directly. As a social movement, the BTF proves that human intervention can go hand in hand with conservation of the environment, unlike what deep ecologists may believe (Gadgil and Guha 1992). The BTF propagates conservation of resources through judicious and conscientious use, protection and replenishment. It worries not only about the maintenance of Bishnoi religious values, but also about the survival of the communities as related and inseparable from two conditions:
- Survival of Thar—which is an old, carry-over value inherited not only by Bishnois but many others living close to desert ecology.
- Checking of contemporary environmental crimes, application of rule of law, the expeditious dispensation of justice alongside saving the dwindling or near-threatened animal and plant life in western Rajasthan.
Both the ABJRBS and BTF remain vociferous about demanding animal and plant protection and both represent newer trends in the Bishnoi community. However, they also remain under-analysed. On the Bishnois themselves, Jain’s (2011) ethnographic work provides details of the community’s religion and its ecological customs. Jain (2011:52) mentions that important environmental studies in India (Gadgil and Guha 1992) entail a passing reference to the community. Gold (2002) briefly mentions Bishnois in her work on ‘nature’ in Rajasthan. Authors such as Vandana Shiva (1999) and Chapple (2011) have also spoken of the Bishnois in their works, mainly to highlight their extreme commitment to the environment; none of these authors provides details about the community’s focussed ecological work (Reichert 2015). So far, socio-political analysis on the BTF is rare if not entirely absent.
Studies that interpret the BTF’s origin, inspirations, experiences, challenges and interventions as a protest movement are hence an urgent necessity for documenting the changing realities of social action on the ground. Except for newspaper reports and a few odd sources that mention the BTF, one does not find much work done on it. My own data collected since 2012 is based on fieldwork among movement leaders Rampal Bhavad, Ram Niwas Bishnoi, local scholars and other actors and onlookers (including Bishnoi priests and community elders, police, wildlife and forest departments of Jodhpur and Bikaner).
The leaders and activists of the movement analyse for me that during their journey of protests, they have organised many agitations, called rallies, sat on dharnas (a method of seeking justice in India through sit-ins and fasting) and turned culprits in or followed up many a case of environmental crimes. Their journey, they assert, differs from muhim (campaign) and extends much beyond the restricted realm of agitation or pressure politics. It is an andolan that comprises many voices in an anxious bid to fill up the action-vacuum by the state and the government.
But who are these activists and what is their larger contribution? These activists are youth members of the BTF, for whom, the tipping point that spawned off their collective action and politics was not one, but an amalgam of many unanswered grievances. Since neither the legal machinery of the state nor the administration (such as wildlife and forests departments) has been effective in addressing the concerns of the BTF, these activists were also not convinced that political leaders from their own Bishnoi community would be of much help. Within the Bishnoi community, environment-related work done by committees/assemblies such as the ABJRBS remains laudable.[i] The BTF took upon itself the mandate to wage a full-fledged protest politics. Hence, the main contribution of the BTF members and activists has been to check crime and work towards speedy justice. In doing so, it fills up a twofold gap:
- First, the want of expeditious justice or skilful handling of environmental crime by the forest and wildlife departments at an external level.
- Second, an internal dearth within the community. The activists are proud of the fact that the Bishnois possess an immense wealth of traditions and philosophies that cater directly to maintaining and living in harmony with nature. However, there came a point of time (approximately during the late 1990s) when the founding members of the BTF felt that they were inadequately equipped to deal with the changing scale, modus operandi, magnitude and corruption related to environmental crime.
Therefore, budding leaders as Ram Pal Bhavad and Ram Niwas Bishnoi (personal interviews, December 28, 2017) reasoned among themselves that given the Bishnoi grievances against rising wildlife crimes in western Rajasthan, an organised movement would fill in a vital gap.
BTF members: Youth as social resource
BTF members, who are typically young, could be anywhere between teenage to late thirties. The idea, says Ram Niwas Bishnoi (personal interview, December 26, 2017), is to gainfully engage the community youth in constructive activities while they are completing their higher education on the side or making initial moves into settling down into careers. Such youth have spare time and energy. Instead of wasting this shared resource, BTF leaders devised an ingenious way to convert it into social capital.
Belonging to a community whose experience in protecting wildlife and spearheading conservation efforts is considered one of the most successful models the world over (Hazarika 1993), BTF leaders hit the bullseye by involving the youth. The community supports and continues to voluntarily offer its infrastructure and resources such as temples, shelter places, transport vehicles, legal knowledge to the BTF. The BTF, in turn, employs its social movement for community welfare, voluntarily and completely free of charge.
The erstwhile general secretary of the BTF, Ram Niwas Bishnoi, who is now into state youth politics, still supports and endorses the organisation and its work from outside. Ram Niwas says that his move is a part of natural evolution; being in his thirties he has other worries which made him move on to different terrains. Given the fact that he started volunteering with the BTF since the age of 13, helping the organisation out still remains a part and parcel of his life. If not as a direct activist-member, but as a community adult with almost two decades of experience, Ram Niwas is still eager to contribute as much as he can.
The above example reflects the processes of evolution and changes that the BTF experiences and remains receptive to. Its members do witness the usual problems such as the lack of complete agreement or blind trust in each other, yet they know how to move on in the odd case of a stalemate. Credit goes to the natural propensity of the youth to remain close-knit as friends while being co-workers because they have virtually grown up together during the course of their movement. And in case of a rift, they seem to have the potential to understand each other’s need to engage in other modes of social action or move on (individual reflections of Bhavad and Ram Niwas: personal interviews, December 28, 2017)
BTF: Turning reverence into resourceful contestation
The andolan participants frequently co-relate their social action as originating from their two identities. Possessing an ecological consciousness as part of social upbringing, they felt that their love for ecology would not ensure its overall protection. This is what led to the formation of BTF in the late 1990s in Jodhpur.
However, its epicentre being one particular state does not deter it from reaching out and travelling all over western Rajasthan. In the performance of its environmental activism, the members are always ready to spare time from their routines. Their personal lives are not sustained through activism. The youth members may get some of their expenses from traditional livelihoods. Families and friends in the villages support them generously by providing daily allowances, despite their absence from farm labour back home (personal interviews with villagers from Budhnagar and Rotu, December 2013).
Significantly, the Bishnoi women encourage the men to wage struggles and protests in the pursuit of environmental justice, never mind the dangers or resources that this implies. Supportive community members in the city and towns extend professional help to the activists. The Bishnoi community is known to own transport houses, and many drive vehicles free of charge for BTF’s cause or may provide fuel. Also known for having diversified into the legal profession, one of the biggest sources of voluntary advice for the BTF in court cases on environmental issues, are the lawyers from the community (Advocate Mahipal Bishnoi, personal interview, December 27, 2017).
Thus, the activists are able to tap into their community resources effectively. DFO B.R. Bhado (telephonic conversation, July 2012, Jaipur; personal interview, December 2014, Jodhpur), from the forest department, is another such resource person for BTF activists. As an alert officer who has become well-known for thwarting many an environmental crime, he helps the BTF by guiding the organisation on forest laws and procedures. Bhado states, ‘Poaching is a crime that happens in clandestine silences that are potent enough to drown the voice of laws in India. Therefore, we support the Bishnois Tiger Force actors who participate in protest politics, to register upon the Indian society and state, fair and square, a concern, a fear and a hope for a public, village-based environmental wellbeing.’
Repertoires of protest: Beyond memories of martyrdom
Bishnois have been sacrificing their lives protecting the chinkara and blackbuck from hunting in general (Jain 2010; Luthra Sinha 2016 and 2014). Even though the local public memory is aware of the sacrifices made by the Bishnois, yet it is the members of the Bishnoi communities themselves who recount and narrate with exactitude in one village after another, the particulars and fine points of each incident when members from the community have died in poaching-related incidents.
The ABJRBS is particularly focussed on reconnecting memory and raising funds to establish community parks, helping martyr families, registering dissent notes with the government on and off. It takes an active interest in maintaining status quo of environmental crime cases (registered or not, whether won or still being tried), and how the families left behind cope in case of a death in defence of wildlife. This strong inclination to document martyrdom or build monuments and parks in memory of those who have died is manifest in the social work taken up by the ABJRBS at an all-India level. The aforementioned concerns resonate within BTF activism too.
Nevertheless, fundamentally, BTF is a protest movement and hence it is more concerned, at a public level, with managing the aftermath of such martyrdom politically: making sure that FIRs in such cases are lodged; collaborating with lawyers to conduct a legal-political follow up on the case; campaigning for justice; projecting voices in the media; networking through the BTF information grid consisting of its volunteers and activists in far-flung villages. Importantly, the BTF campaigns for and remains inclined to solve cases of crime where no martyrdom has taken place (group discussion and interviews with BTF activists, December 2013 and December 2017).
The BTF has worked hard to create rescue centres for injured and wounded animals and birds. Not only has it inspired the government to establish 21 such centres in Jodhpur, but have helped in making five centres run themselves through their community networks (see maps and quick facts in this module). From 2007 on, BTF youth have made animal rescue centres functional in Jhajiwal, Jalore, Lohawat and Mukam using infrastructure within their community (conversations and group discussions with the department of Jodhpur; community members including priests, women and elders in the above-mentioned centres, December 26-December 28, 2017).
In terms of workforce as well as other resources, the social movement executed by the BTF does not shy away from providing infrastructural support to the government where needed. For instance, in the Jodhpur Zoo Rescue Centre, the BTF donated a vehicle (Jodhpur Forest Department Veterinary doctor S.S. Rathore, personal interview, December 27, 2017) to bring in the rescued animals efficiently.
Voicing protests against environmental crimes, the movement creates a discourse on the need to chisel conservation related laws and policies in India. The BTF strives to bridge the divide between Bishnoi know-how and processes of justice in western Rajasthan. It presses for a re-look into the current mismatch between encumbrances of the hunting communities, environmental law and its inability to check organised poaching in western Rajasthan.
The BTF protest movement and its youth politics reflect growth and newer trends that compel us to look further than its religious ethics.[ii] This article takes the stand that the Bishnoi conservation ethic is just the tip of the iceberg. It is complemented further through the everyday activism of the BTF without which the community’s struggle to protect the natural heritage of western Rajasthan would be but a half-told story. This newfound engagement of the Bishnoi youth with environmental activism has spawned off a politics of ecology that enriches the overall ethos of the community’s lifeworld even further.
[i] The Bishnois do not allow the killing of wildlife; they also stop any cutting of trees. Animal and plant life statistics are way ahead in Bishnoi areas as compared to others,’ says Sona Ram Bishnoi, a leader of the community. Wildlife census figures for this area are not easily available but senior government officials acknowledge that the Bishnois have been far more effective even against poachers than many official conservation efforts. In fact, in many areas, divisional forest officers, such as in the Abahor Wildlife Sanctuary, regularly depend on the Bishnois for night patrolling against the poachers.
In Bishnoi areas, in addition to a profusion of wildlife that is rare in most arid and semi-desert zones, one finds sturdy thorny acacias and other shrubs and trees that make the sand dunes appear green. Small herds of deer, unafraid of humans, flourish in the millet fields and shrublands around the villages of the Bishnois. The Bishnoi community which lives in India's most arid zone in a belt from south-western Rajasthan to the state of Haryana, north of New Delhi, has developed much of this belt as a buffer against the advance of the sprawling desert, also called the Thar Desert. Deer, blackbuck and other species—peacocks, rabbits and pigeons—feed and move about confidently in these areas.
[ii] Some examples where activists from both the BTF and ABJRBS have undertaken a collaborative involvement in support of their community causes, in contrast to their individual objectives and repertoires are listed below:
- In January 2007, local Bishnois of the village Agneyu in Bikaner filed complaints against a film producer when a horse died at the sets.
- On March 14, 2008, the ABJRBS demanded the ouster of Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni for sacrificing an animal (New India Press, March 14, 2008).
- In October 1999, Bishnois surrounded the local police station in Churu, Rajasthan, after more than 20 Indian gazelles and three peacocks were found dead near the village of Sansatwar. Authorities had to suspend the local police officers for their alleged negligence in failing to prevent these killings (BBC News Oct 28, 1999).
- Divisional Forest Officers at Abohar Wildlife Sanctuary regularly depend on local Bishnoi community in night patrolling against the poachers (The Times of India, June 8, 2003).
- In Haryana, Bishnois are often the first to report poaching incidents (The Times of India, January 12, 2003).
The above examples drive home a simple fact: there could be points of time wherein the work of the ABJRBS and BTF overlap. Hence, it is likely to be read together under the same macro lens of the community’s religious ethics. However, there remains a notable difference in their individual origin, membership, tasks, and modus operandi.
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