The Parasnath Hills, home to Jain pilgrimage destination Sammed Shikharji in Giridih district of Jharkhand, is set for a showdown between Jains and tribals, with tribal activists on Friday demanding that the Centre and the state government announce the place as a pilgrimage centre for them as it is being done for the Jain community and threatening a stir if the demand is not met.
The development comes a day after the union ministry for forest and environment ordered a stay on all tourism activities at Sammed Shikharji and directed the state government to strictly enforce an existing ban on sale of liquor, other intoxicants and non-vegetarian food in the Parasnath Wildlife Sanctuary area, as demanded by the Jain community members who have been holding widespread protests to press their demand for preserving the sanctity of the site they consider sacred to their faith.
Addressing reporters at the residence of ruling JMM legislator Lobin Hembrom, tribal right activists said they are preparing for a movement across the country if their demands are not met.
“It’s us tribals who own that area. We have been very cooperative in honouring the religious sentiments of the Jain community for several decades. But now things are getting beyond tolerance. Several restrictions are being imposed on the tribals living there, including on their religious and customary practices, even in villages 10 kilometres away,” said Sikander Hembrom, a tribal rights activist and resident of Parasnath area.
“That hill is considered ‘Marang Buru’ (most sacred mountain) by the tribals. We have documentary proof from the record of rights to show that tribals own that place. If the government is declaring it as a Jain religious centre, it should also declare it a pilgrimage centre for tribals and allow people living in that area to continue with their customs,” he said.
The tribals argued that their customary and religious practices and of Jains are at odds and there cannot be a blanket ban on certain things in the entire area.
“The Jain community is against animal sacrifice while we are worshippers of Shakti and we sacrifice animals as per our customs on important occasions. We are putting both the Centre and the state government on notice. If our demands are not met by January 25, we would begin a fast at Ulihatu (birthplace of legendary tribal leader Birsa Munda in Khunti) on January 30 and stage another protest ar Boghnadih (Sahebganj) in February,” said JMM legislator Lobin Hembrom.
Putting his own party’s government in the dock, Hembrom said the Hemant Soren government should have consulted the gram pradhans of tribal villages before announcing to develop Parasnath as the religious centre for the Jains.
Naresh Kumar Murmu, working president of International Santhal Council, which works for Santhals, the biggest tribal group in Jharkhand, also questioned the union environment ministry’s order issued on Thursday.
“How can you put a blanket ban on certain activities in such a large area? It’s a scheduled area and wildlife sanctuary, but they have proposed to keep only one tribal member in the monitoring committee against two members of the Jain community. How can the voice of tribals be subverted when the President of the country is a tribal woman and the state is headed by a tribal chief minister,” said Murmu.
Meanwhile, Jharkhand government officials said a mechanism is being put in place to end the crisis.
“As far as the Centre’s order regarding eco-tourism is concerned, no project was taken up at Parasnath anyway. As far as the management of Sammed Shikhar ji is concerned, the Parasnath Development Authority is being constituted, which is likely to become functional from next week. The Authority would also have members of the Jain community which will help in management of the place,” said tourism secretary Manoj Kumar.
Officials said the Authority is likely to demarcate the area of the Jain pilgrim centre to prevent the possibility of any local conflict.
“We can’t impose blanket restrictions in the entire region as several villages are located across the Parasnath wildlife sanctuary area,” said an official, who didn’t wish to be identified.
The Jain community has been protesting against the Jharkhand government’s tourism policy, which intended to develop Sammed Shikharji in Parasnath hills, among other places in the state, as a tourist destination.
Representatives of Jain community had called on union environment minister Bhupender Yadav on Thursday after which his ministry issued fresh orders staying all tourism activities in the area.
The ruling JMM in Jharkhand has, however, termed the Centre’s decision as a diversionary tactic.
“Earlier, the BJP was pinning the blame on the state government for this crisis. But when we exposed them and highlighted notifications by the BJP government, they came up with this half-baked order on Thursday. In any case, they took the decision in haste as home minister Amit Shah is visiting the state,” said JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya.
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