Reel heroes and real ones

Reel heroes and real ones IN THE sparse jungles on the fringe of the Thar in western Rajasthan, the battle is between celluloid heroes and real-life heroes. At stake are the endangered Blackbucks and Chinkaras. The protagonist, Bollywood actor Salman Khan - accompanied by Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam, and Sonali Bendre - thought he could get away after allegedly killing two Blackbucks. In any other place, his actions might not have raised righteous indignation. But not in this part of the country. His nemesis proved to be the Bishnois, a Vaishnavite sect, who for centuries have militantly conserved their flora and fauna and for whom, protecting wildlife is an integral part of their sacred tradition and chasing away gun-toting thugs, tourists and poachers is a matter of life and death. But probably for the first time, their acts of courage and conviction got unprecedented media attention.

On October 1, in the dusty village Kankani, some 30 kilometres from Jodhpur, a group of Bishnois chased a hunting party of the film stars, and then lodged a complaint against them. Subsequently, Salman and Saif Ali were arrested. While Saif Ali managed to get bail, Salman got the dubious distinction of being the first person to be arrested in the state and kept in the state forest department's custody since the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 came into force.

An untold story is that the film celebrities, in all probability, had a hairline escape. The Bishnois usually rough up offenders. Five years ago, angry villagers refused to let an air force helicopter take off because it had landed after some airborne hunting. Two years ago an army officer who was caught hunting deer, was beaten by the Bishnois. "Anybody who tries to even kill a bird or cut a tree in our area, can't get away easily," says Sukhram of Gaud Vishnoi village. "He (Salman) was quite lucky. If we had caught them, then you would not have seen him again," says Sukhram. "Tourists come in large numbers," says Feroz a resident of Jodhpur. Many indulge in hunting antelopes and deer, a "sport" promoted by hotels, which are mostly run by the erstwhile feudal lords. Says Prahlad Ram Bishnoi, 60, from Kankani village: "We don't follow the government rules. We have our own laws. The government is saying only now not to cut trees, but we have been saying it for centuries."

The common desert tree Khejari (Prosopis cineraria) and blackbuck are especially sacred to the Bishnois. It is said that in 1730, many Bishnois died fighting their then local king, who tried to cut trees. "Over 363 people, including Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi woman, from 84 villages, gave their lives trying to protect the trees," says Bakkar Ram of Gaud Vishnoi village. There is an award for conservation named after her. And even today, when the population is growing and there is shortage of space, the Bishnois practise conservation. A few years ago, Ram himself was shot at, while chasing a poacher. He lost his right leg. On an average 50 to 60 cases of poaching are reported every year in this area, say forest officials. "This year, 26 cases have come to our notice. Since there are no protected areas, poaching has become a routine affair," says H C Meena, the conservator of forest, (Wildlife) Jodhpur.

Environmentalists say that there was an attempt of a cover-up too. The veterinary doctor who first carried out the post-mortem of the Blackbucks noted in his report that one had died of overeating and other, because of leaping. The forest department, however, could not swallow the story. The doctor is absconding ever since. The second autopsy report, done by a team of three doctors, noted that the deer were shot.

Ironically, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) carried the picture Salman in its 1999 calendar. But after this incident, the WWF has stopped the printing of the calendar and has replaced the photograph of Salman with another film star. The incident has also become a political issue in view of the approaching elections for the state assembly. The ruling BJP and the opposition Congress party are calling for stringent action to get the sympathy of the Bishnoi community. The Bishnoi vote can swing the result in at least six to seven assembly constituencies in Rajasthan.

Despite the increasing agricultural activity and the spread of the city, wildlife is abundant in the scrub forests near Jodhpur, which is the Bishnoi heartland. This could be attributed to the conservationist role of the Bishnois. In 1472, the Pipasar village of Marwar was affected by a severe drought. This forced the villagers to fell trees to feed their animals. The drought persisted for three years. But the people realised that trees could help fight drought. That is why the Bishnoi landscape is more green than that of other villages. Here, animals can be seen roaming and no one dares to hurt them. Babu Lal Bishnoi says that the Bishnoi tradition of conservation originated about 500 years ago, when Jambhoji, a saint, founded the sect, Nature protection was given foremost importance in their tenets. "Only these people have maintained much of the flora and fauna," says S M Mohnot, executive director of the School of Desert Sciences, an NGO in Jodhpur.

"For centuries the Bishnois have protected the wildlife," says Meena. Today, they are turning hostile to the tourists. Says Prahlad Bisnoi, a villager of Kankani: "These people should not be allowed to visit our areas." "It is very difficult to catch them as they have sophisticated weapons," says Birbal, another Bishnoi. Since these animals do not have hideouts like a sanctuary or a forest, they are traceable, he points out. "Notwithstanding the fact that Salman is out on bail, this incident has strengthened our belief that wildlife needs to be protected at any cost. It has also sent a grim reminder to poachers, even if they are rich and powerful," says Om Prakash Bishnoi, a villager.

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