A small sect of Bishnoi’s in North-Western India have led and inspired environmental action across the subcontinent
This is the story of the world’s oldest environmental movement.
September 11th is significant for a different reason to the Bishnoi community of North-Western India. It is said that on this day in 1730 AD, Amrita Devi Bishnoi from the village of Khejarli, Rajasthan, led a protest against the cutting of Khejri trees in her village. The Maharaj of the time, Abhai Singh of Marwar, sent his minister, Giridhar Bhandari, on a mission to cut trees for construction on a new palace. When Amrita Devi heard the news of soldiers with axes coming to cut the tree, she — along with her three daughters and a few villagers — demonstrated, to no end.
Devi then went and hugged a Khejri tree, hoping the king’s men would give an inch. But the unrelenting royal party chopped right through her. Horrified by the sight, Devi’s three daughters also went and hugged trees and were killed in a similar manner. The villagers around them followed suit. This is now known as the Khejarli Massacre.
The Bishnoi sect follow the 29 principles established by their founding guru, Guru Jambeshwar, in Bikaner, Rajasthan, back in the 16th century. The principles are rooted in compassion and co-existence with nature. Trees, especially the Khejri tree, are of deep significance to the community. In the arid desert of Thar, the Khejri tree is life-giving. It plays an important role in maintaining the ecosystem of the desert, it is a source of fodder for cattle, its leaves make for excellent compost, it provides firewood, the flowers of the tree are consumed by pregnant women along with sugar, it nourishes the soil, and so on.
When they heard the news of the tree-hacking, Bishnois from 83 villages gathered and decided that for every tree cut, one Bishnoi would sacrifice their life. 363 people from 49 villages gave their lives that day.
Distressed by the massacre and martyrdom of the Bishnois, the Maharaj apologized to the community and issued a decree engraved on a copper plate prohibiting the felling of trees and hunting of animals near Bishnoi villages.
Conservation beyond culture
The Bishnois inhabit the states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. You can tell a Bishnoi village from others, marked by stretches of trees and bushes, and grazing antelopes and gazelles. The Bishnoi women are even known to breast-feed orphaned antelope. Despite their glorious past in conservation, the Bishnoi community lived in obscurity until a certain celebrity scandal brought them into the limelight.
They lodged a case against one of the biggest names in Bollywood, Salman Khan, for allegedly killing two Black Bucks (Indian antelope) in 1998. The actor was sentenced to five years in prison for his crime 20 years after the incident. A Black Buck is especially sacred to the community since they consider it a manifestation of their Guru Jambeshwar.
Of course, their compassion for nature goes beyond whistleblowing.
Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi, a wildlife conservationist, and photographer from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, said,
“Our entire community works in wildlife conservation, and protecting the trees and nature around us. Following in the footsteps of my community, and our Guru Jambeshwar Bhagwan, I began working in this field. In my area, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is an endangered bird. My efforts are focused on protecting endangered birds such as the Bustard.”
The GIB or Godawan as it is called locally is a critically endangered bird with a population of less than 200 spanning across 6 Indian states. Rajasthan has the highest population at over 100.
For the last eight years, Pemani has been working as an animal rescuer. As an amateur, he did not know much about the proper treatment of animals.
So, he would travel to Jodhpur, 200 km away from Jaisalmer, where the veterinarian at the Jodhpur Machia Biological Park Rescue and Rehabilitation center would take care of the animals. However, the long journey was detrimental to the animal’s health so the center trained Pemani as a rescuer.
The Bishnois have also organized themselves into groups using the law to fight for nature. One such group is the Bishnoi Tiger Force (BTF), a registered NGO, organizing to further conservation politics, who have, to date, registered over 400 cases of poaching. In 2020, when a government order sanctioned the cutting of trees along a road near Jodhpur, on the premise of them interfering with overhead electric lines, a Bishnoi village group protested it, calling the hacking of trees ‘unnecessary.’ The BTF was a fierce supporter of the demonstration and the government finally backed down.
Pemani, along with many others in his community, regularly tips off the forest department regarding poaching attempts of different animals, such as the Indian Gazelle and the Black Buck. They also work on tree-planting initiatives, keeping in mind the local variety most suitable for wild animals.
However, Pemani says that the forest department can be difficult to work with and that they should be doing more to protect the animals.
Sumit Dookia, a conservationist who spearheaded the Godawan Conservation Project spoke about how he has trained youth such as Pemani and helped the Bishnoi community understand the importance of biodiversity conservation beyond religion.
“In the last few years, we have lost a large number of wolves in Western Rajasthan. Wolves used to be the top predators but sheepherders and goat herders used to kill wolf cubs in the den. If we are only to save the chinkara (Indian gazelle), what about the ecosystem? It is important to communicate that all animals need to be saved if you want a functional ecosystem. If only the chinkaras are saved, it will lead to a human-chinkara conflict in the agricultural field,” said Dookia.
Dookia belongs to the same caste as the Bishnoi, which he believes has helped him relay the message of ecosystem conservation. He speaks to the principles of Guru Jambeshwar, saying that the guru wasn’t just asking his people to save the gazelle and the Black Buck — which they hold especially sacred — but all animals.
“Many of his 29 principles are still very relevant. One of the principles says ‘don’t be greedy.’ If we want to save the environment, his doctrines are very relevant in the present context of climate change,” said Dookia.
Many environmental movements in India have drawn inspiration from Amrita Devi’s tree-hugging demonstration. The most famous is the ‘Chipko Andolan’ of the 1970s, in Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand, a northern state in India. ‘Chipko’ means to ‘cling to or ‘embrace, and ‘Andolan’ means ‘agitation.’
In this example, development had just kicked off in Uttar Pradesh and foreign logging companies were eyeing the lush green forests. At the same time, industrial logging had been linked with severe monsoon flooding in the region and groups were vehemently opposing the hacking of trees.
The first Chipko agitation, though, took place in Mandal, a village in the upper Alaknanda valley in April 1973, where villagers stopped the felling of 14 ash trees. The government denied locals access to a small part of the forest, allotting the land to Symmonds, an Allahabad-based sports goods company, instead.
The next major protest took place in Reni, a village in the Chamoli district, where 2000 trees were to be cut. Loggers were met with a group of women hugging trees unwilling to leave.
Chipko became a peasant and women-led movement that followed the principles of non-violence.
Most recently, women in central India, began a tree-hugging campaign, protesting the felling of trees in the Hasdeo-Aranya forest. Activists say that over 200,000 trees are to be cut for a coal mining project run by Adani enterprises — and will be taken from the Adivasis (tribal people).