Tribal activists highlight the prohibitions placed on Santhals to practise their generations-old way of life and religion.
A tribal organisation called the Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan (ASA) has been protesting since January 17 against the Jain community’s sole claim over the Parasnath Hills or Marang Buru, as it is referred to by Santhal Adivasis, in Giridih district of Jharkhand. The movement demands the assertion of the rights of Santhal Adivasis to practise their cultural rituals and religious rights over the mountains.
The Parasnath hills comprise temples or Jain shrines where Jain monks attained moksha, and Sammed Shikharji at the top of the hills is considered a pilgrimage site for the Digambara and Svetambara Jain sects.
On January 5, in response to protests by the Jain community, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had ordered a stay on all tourism activities in the Parasnath hills to protect the sanctity of Sammed Shikharji. Earlier, pursuant to its notification dated August 2, 2019, the ministry had declared an area of up to 25 kilometers around the boundary of Parasnath and Topchanchi Wildlife Sanctuaries in Giridih and Dhanbad districts as an eco-sensitive zone and allowed eco-tourism in the area.
On the other hand, the area is inhabited by the nature-worshipping tribal community, the Santhal (or Santal) tribe, which reveres and worships the mountains as Marang Buru or the Supreme Deity. ASA President and former Member of Parliament Salkhan Murmu told The Leaflet that the Santhal inhabitants reside in around 120 villages in the areas of Parasnath hills, with Jug Jaher Than at the top of the mountains being the main place of worship for the Santhals.
The Santhal adivasis claim that for generations, they have exercised their authority over the mountains of Parasnath hills or Marang Buru to conduct prayers, and other rituals and customs. Through the ongoing protests, they contest the assumption of control over the region by the Jain community, and the enforcement of rules and prohibitions to suit the practices followed by Jains.
Grievance of Santhals
According to Rajni Murmu, Assistant Professor at Godda College in Jharkhand, the cultural rituals of the Santhals such as animal sacrifice and hunting, as well as their fundamental lifestyle of consumption of meat and alcohol are prohibited by the Jain community within five kilometers of the site, with the area containing posters of the prohibition. “The Jain community is guilty of forcing its way of living on the Adivasis,” she added.
In addition to the stay on tourism to protect the sanctity of Jain religious sites, the Union ministry had also directed the government of Jharkhand to enforce a ban on the sale of alcohol, other intoxicants and meat in the area around the Parasnath hills.
Rajni Murmu highlighted that an annual hunt is undertaken by the Santhals as a religious ritual. With the Jains taking control of the area, the Adivasis have been prohibited from exercising their right to religion, she noted. She stated that the wealthy Jain community has garnered support from the government to assert its dominance over the backward and mostly formally illiterate Santhals.
While the Santhals never objected to the Jains setting up temples in the mountains, they oppose the Jains taking over control of the area as their personal property, Rajni Murmu said. She emphasised that the Adivasi-inhabited areas in Parasnath hills or Marang Buru are protected, and alleged that the activities of Jains are akin to land-grabbing. With the Jain community taking over the mountains, there is no accountability over the Jains constructing buildings or roads for religious purposes, unfavourable for the Santhals, she further pointed out.
Legality of Jains’ claim
According to Salkhan Murmu, the dissatisfaction among the Santhals grew after the Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren’s letter dated January 5 to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which claimed that the Parasnath hills is the holy pilgrimage site of the Jain community, without any mention of its significance for Santhal Adivasis.
He claimed that the decision of the Jharkhand government and the National Commission for Minorities to hand the religious rights of the mountains to the Jains was one-sided and taken without consulting the Adivasis.
He emphasised that the land records from the region provide for tribal ownership over the mountains. In 1911, on the clash between the Jain and the Santhals over the rights on the mountains, the Privy Council in London ruled that the Santhals have primary religious and cultural rights over the area, he noted. He questioned the Jain community’s claim of sole rights over the area despite the dispute already being settled by court.
Further, Salkhan Murmu pointed out that the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949, which provide that tribal land cannot be taken away by any non-tribal, is applicable in the state of Jharkhand. Santhals claim that Jains have violated the two Acts by constructing temples, houses and hotels all around the region. He also alleged that the activities of the Jain community in the forests of Parasnath hills are in violation of forest protection laws.
He explained that due to the supreme deity worshipped by the Santhals in Marang Buru or Parasnath hills, the adivasis have a high sentimental and emotional attachment to the mountains, as well as the ritual and cultures attached to them. “Our God is forcefully taken away from us,” he said, on the Jains’ alleged encroachment of the region. However, he proposes an initiation of talks between the authorities and tribal groups to reach an amicable solution.