The story so far: The past few weeks witnessed anoutpouring of anger in the Jain community as hundreds took to the streets protesting two incidents related to holy sites in Jharkhand and Gujarat. While the outcry in Jharkhand was against the categorisation of one of the community’s most sacred sites— Sammed Shikharji atop Parasnath Hill in Giridih district — as a religious tourist destination, protests spread to Gujarat against the alleged desecration of a temple in Shatranjuya Hills in Bhavnagar district.
Faced with unrelenting protests, the Centre on Thursday stayed all activities related to eco-tourism around the Parasnath wildlife sanctuary and modified its 2019 notification designating the area as an eco-sensitive zone. In Gujarat, a person has been arrested in connection with the temple’s vandalisation , while the government has formed a task force to address issues raised by the community and boost security in the area.
The Jharkhand issue: Centre vs State over 2019 notification
Sammed Sikharji or Sikharji is considered one of the most sacred sites among the Digambara and Shwetambar Jain communities. The shrine is located atop a range of hills, named after the 23rd Tirthankara, Parasnath. It is believed that 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras (enlightened beings) attained moksha (salvation) at Sikharji. There is a shrine, or gumti, for each of them on the hill— some believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Thousands from across the world undertake the 27 km trek to these temples every year.
The hill holds significance for the state’s tribal community as well. “The Santhals call it ‘Marang Buru’, the hill of the deity. They celebrate a hunting festival on the full moon day in Baisakh (mid-April),” says the Jharkhand government website.
The controversy: In August 2019, the Union Environment Ministry issued a notification to declare the buffer zone of Parasnath Hill, also home to a wildlife sanctuary, and Topchanchi sanctuary an ‘eco-sensitive zone’, or ESZ, noting their “tremendous potential to support thriving eco-tourism”.
As per central guidelines, an eco-sensitive zone is created to act as a cushion or “shock absorber” for protected areas and a transition zone from areas of high protection to less protection.
The notification followed a proposal by the previous BJP-led government led by Raghubar Das. “The Sanctuary has great aesthetic value and scope for wildlife research and education and has tremendous potential to support thriving eco-tourism,” the final notification said. It further directed the State government to prepare a zonal master plan within two years, including a ‘tourism master plan’ for the promotion of eco-tourism. “All new eco-tourism activities or expansion of existing tourism activities within the ESZ shall be as per the Tourism Master Plan…,” it said, mentioning activities that would be regulated in the sensitive zone.
In July last year, Chief Minister Hemant Soren launched a new tourism policy for the State. The latest policy identified “religious tourism” as a priority area. “Jharkhand has a large number of religious places of national importance. The sacred pilgrim place for Jains, Parasnath, where 20 out of the 24 Tirthankars attained Mahaparinirvana, is situated in Jharkhand… Parasnath, Madhuban and Itkhori would be developed and promoted as places for religious pilgrimage for the Jain community,” the policy stated.
This move infuriated the Jain community, with members fearing that designating the religious site as a tourist spot would destroy the sanctity of the place and lead to an influx of tourists who may indulge in unholy activities at the site. “Why eco-tourism zone; why not eco- thirthsthan or eco-pilgrimage centre?” Muni Pranam Sagarji of the Jain community asked during an interaction with the media.
Another added, “When the place is promoted as a tourist spot, people will start eating meat and drinking liquor. Hotels will come up with several other activities which are not accepted by Jain community members.”
Protests spread to various parts of the State and neighbouring areas. A 72-year-old Jain monk who was on a fast against the decision to list the site as a tourism spot died in Jaipur. Police said the monk had not eaten anything since December 25.
Jharkhand Tourism Secretary Manoj Kumar, meanwhile, clarified that since Parasnath Hills comes under the jurisdiction of a wildlife sanctuary, even for minor construction, permission has to be sought from wildlife authorities.
He said the government was ready to amend the notification to mention Parasnath Hills as a ‘Jain religious place’, although it is already recognised as a Jain religious location. . CM Hemant Soren also maintained that his government had not acted on the Centre’s August 2019 notification which permitted eco-tourism in the Parasnath wildlife sanctuary. In a tweet, the CM said he had written to Union Minister Bhupender Yadav to take an “appropriate decision on Centre’s notification” to maintain the sanctity of the site in Parasnath.
The National Commission for Minorities also took cognizance of the matter amid raging discontent among the community. Jains constitute less than 1 per cent of India’s population, and are known for wealth, philanthropy and a vegan lifestyle.
Government response: The Centre on Thursday stayed all tourism activities at Parasnath Hill following a meeting of Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav with representatives of the Jain community. The Ministry of Environment directed the Jharkhand government to “immediately take all steps necessary” to protect the sanctity of the site. “In reference to the Eco Sensitive Zone Notification dated 2nd August, 2019, issued to protect a buffer zone beyond the sacred Parashnath Hill; the implementation of provisions of Clause 3 of the said Eco Sensitive Zone notification is stayed forthwith, including amongst others all tourism and eco-tourism activities.”
“ESZ notification is not intended to promote uncontrolled tourism, and definitely not to promote all kinds of development activities within a sanctuary boundary. Declaration of ESZ is in fact to restrict or regulate activities SURROUNDING the sanctuary and, therefore, OUTSIDE its boundary,” the statement read. The Centre also constituted a committee to monitor the provisions of the modified eco-sensitive zone notification. The panel will have two members from the Jain community and one from the local tribal community, the ministry said.
The issue, however, remains far from resolved, as leaders of the Santhal tribe, one of the largest ST communities in the country, have staked a claim on the land and warned of a revolt if their demands are not met. “We want the government to take steps based on documentation...The 1956 gazette mentions it as ‘Marang Buru’...The Jain community had lost a legal battle for Parasnath in the past,” Naresh Kumar Murmu of the International Santhal Council told PTI.
The Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan’s president Salkhan Murmu alleged that Jains had illegally grabbed the highest place of worship of the Santhals and said if the governments fail to resolve the issue, the community will hit the streets across the country.
What happened in Gujarat?
Shatrunjay Hills in Palitana is a prominent pilgrimage site for Shwetambara Jains, with over 850 temples said to have been built over 900 years ago. The temples are grouped in enclosures, each with a central temple flanked by smaller units. The summit is at a height of 7,288 ft, accessed by climbing over 3,700 steps. It is believed that Adinath, the founder of Jainism, meditated beneath a tree at the summit. One of the biggest temples, located on the summit, is dedicated to him.
The controversy: Back in November, members of the Jain community alleged that the ‘charan paduka’ (footprints) of Adinath placed at a temple on the Shatrunjay Hills were vandalised. A few days later, CCTV cameras were also found damaged at the site. The twin incidents triggered protests, with Jain organisations taking out rallies across the State, demanding action against anti-social elements. The community also raised the issue of illegal mining and liquor sale in the area, alleging that it was destroying the sanctity of the holy place.
“Hand carts and shops along the roads should also be removed and hooch dens that have cropped up in the area need to be shut. All illegal activities in the hills such as mining and land grabbing should be stopped and the hills should be mapped to remove illegal construction — these are our main demands,” Pranav Shah, secretary of Samagra Jain Swetambar Murtipujak Tapagachh Shree Mahasangh of Ahmedabad told news agency PTI. As per an official of another Jain trust, over 80 rallies were held in different parts of the state following the incident.
After protests spread across the State and parts of Mumbai, the Gujarat government announced a task force to address the grievances of the community regarding alleged illegal activities. A police outpost was also set up at Shatrunjaya Hills, with a police sub-inspector in charge to tighten security in the area. Meanwhile, a person was arrested in connection with vandalism at the shrine.