Adivasis Claim Right Over Jain Holy Place; Cites Jal Jungle Jameen Connection

Surrendering to the Jain protest across the country, the Centre halts all tourist activities at the Sammed Shikharji mountain peak, which is Marang Buru for the Santhals, Adivasi communities, and leaders have come forward with their demands ascertaining their right to the native land.

Parasnath Hills (Representative image)

At a distance of about 160 km from Jharkhand's capital Ranchi, Giridih's Parasnath hill range has drawn national and international attention as Jain protests erupted across the country against the central government notification promoting eco-tourism at the Jain pilgrimage site. Surrendering to the Jain protest across the country, the Centre halted all tourist activities at the Sammed Shikharji mountain peak on January 6, which is Marang Buru for the Santhal community. Adivasi communities and leaders have begun raising their demands to ascertain their right to their native land. 

During a press conference in Ranchi on Friday,  Borio MLA Lobin Hembrom with other Adivasi activists and leaders called for a major protest at the Peer Taand ground, some 6 km away from the Shikharji Vandana starting point. Speaking with Outlook, the Borio MLA said that the Adivasis have resided at the Marang Buru forever and offered their prayers to the Gods of nature. "The Jain community restricts Adivasi women from entering the forests to collect wood, Kurmis and Muslims are also prohibited from entering within 10kms radius of the mountain range. Previously, the Disab Manjhi Tand board was also thrown away by Jains, which was later reinstalled by the natives," Lobin said while objecting to the movement of Digambar Jains in the tribal villages.

He also expressed his displeasure at the Centre's decision on the monitoring committee for the Marang Buru. "While two Jains have been appointed to the committee by the government, only one tribal representation has been given to us." Further, Lobin added that a group of local school-going children were barred from climbing up to the mountaintop after confirming with them if they were 'Jainis' or 'non-jainis.' "The children were beaten by Jain visitors and pilgrims which later created a hullabaloo in the village," he told Outlook.

"Parasnath is the Marang Buru or hill deity of the Santhals of Hazaribagh, Manbhum, Bankura and Santhal Parganas and each year they assemble at the period of the full moon in Baisakh... celebrate a religious hunt for three days; after which great tribal session is held for the trial of charges against Manjhies and Parganaids and of other grave matters which affect the outcasting of individuals,"  states the Bihar district gazetteer Hazaribagh. The gazetteer, which was prepared by P.C Roy Choudhury, special officer, gazetteer recision section, Revenue department, further reads, "The entry of these customs in the rights which was prepared in 1911 and of the similar rights of the Ghatwars was followed by the institution of a suit by the Swetambar Jains to have it declared that no such custom exists. That suit was dismissed by the judicial commissioner and an appeal, preferred against his order, has been rejected by the High court. The case went up to the Privy Council, London and it was held that the Santhals have the customary right of hunting on the Parasnath hill..."

Noted environmentalist and tribal activist Dayamani Barla, while speaking to Outlook, said that the Parasnath as Marang Buru is a crucial holy site of the Santhal community. "The Adivasis have never opposed the Jain community or objected to their pilgrim site. However, the Jains' claim over approximately 100 acres of land in the tribal village is unfair and hegemonic," Barla said. She also added that the government must take cognizance of Adivasi sentiments, practices, and rights.

Local leader Sikendar Hembrom has been fighting for tribal rights in the region and said that the mountain range has always been Marang Buru. "By origin and by birth, the tribals belong to the forests. We do not worship an Aakriti (shape) but Prakriti (nature). Our deities are the god of nature, rivers and trees, and mountains."

"Over the past year, the Jains from different parts of the country have sent over 1,000 complaints against us to the Prime Minister's Office which were then transferred to the local authorities who did not find anything in their investigations," Sikendar says, adding, "They (Jains) had filed a case against our customary practices some 100 years ago in the district court and went up to the High Court, which dismissed their plea. Later, the Privy Council in London heard the case and gave a judgment upholding our rights and custom to practice the Sendra (hunting ritual)."

Sikendar also sheds light on the association of Sidho-Kanho, leaders of the Santhal rebellion against the colonial British forces. "The rebellion brothers offered their prayers to the Madang Guru before sacrificing their lives for freedom and independence. Budhu Manjhi, a tribal freedom fighter was also a tribal priest at the Marang Buru before being arrested and jailed at the Hazaribagh Central Jail. With 71 tribal families residing across 600 acres of land, there is no mention of Jain residents in the 1917 Giridih survey and settlement operations report, how can the Jains assert one-sided malikana haq (ownership) to our land?" Sikander questioned.

It is the tribal and Muslim local population of the region who work as doli carriers, taking pilgrims to the mountaintop and bringing them back. "Ten days ago, a visitor, from outside our land and state restricted our children from climbing the mountain. Local shopkeepers protested against this and shut their businesses, however, no national media or government heeds to the issues of the tribals of Jharkhand. We are not against the religious or spiritual beliefs of any community, but we want to ascertain that if you are a guest, you shall remain one and we will be respectful to you. You cannot come here and claim your ownership of us and our heritage," Sikander added saying that the government must show their acknowledgement of the Adivasi community and practice just as it has for Jains.

The January 10 protest is expected to witness a large number of Adivasi and other community leaders and assenters coming together, fighting for their land and heritage in the tribal state of Jharkhand.