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If Salman Khan thought his crime would be given a quiet burial, he couldn’t have been more wrong

Bishnoi people have also lost their lives protecting blackbuck and chinkara from poachers.

Bishnoi people have also lost their lives protecting blackbuck and chinkara from poachers.   | Photo Credit: Ajaj Shaikh

The Bishnois are not people who will go down without a fight

You don’t have to know the Wildlife Protection Act to realise that hunting is prohibited in India. Even lesser educated communities hard up for food are aware of it. For that matter, you don’t have to know the 29 tenets of Bishnoi religious practice to realise hunting antelopes on their lands is a stupid thing to do.

It’s no secret that these species are sacred in those parts nor are the eccentric levels to which the people go to provide care for them. Not only do they rear orphaned fawns, but nursing Bishnoi mothers also breastfeed them if necessary. Were Salman Khan and his buddies living under a rock that they didn’t know all this? Or were they so brazen to think they could get away with it?

Rajasthan is among the least populated states of the country. If those few people go to bed early as rural people are known to do, there’d be no witnesses to the film stars’ clandestine safari. Even if the villagers did see them, the glamorous actors could have assumed they’d be too awestruck to do anything silly like report them to the authorities. Unfortunately for the poachers, the Bishnois may be rustic, but they are not adulating fans blind to the faults of human idols. Throughout their history, they’ve punched far above their weight.

In the mid-18th century, the community famously defied the Marwar king himself. When contractors arrived to chop down khejri (a native mesquite) trees in Khejarli village, women led by Amrita Devi Bishnoi hugged the trunks and dared the men to kill them first. Faced with this rebellion, the loggers felled them. News of their murder spread and inspired others to emulate the women. By the time the king got wind of it and called off the Bishnoi-felling operation, more than 300 people had been killed.

Years later, women of the mountains would take inspiration from the women of the desert to launch the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand.

Making space

The principles of the Bishnoi creed read like the Ten Commandments with an ecological twist. Besides directing his followers not to lie, steal, drink, and smoke or chew tobacco, the Bishnoi spiritual guru Jambheshwar made protecting trees and compassion for all living creatures central to the religion. And his disciples take their name from the number of edicts — Bishnoi means 29 — and go to great lengths to obey them literally. For instance, since cremating their dead would require chopping trees for firewood, they bury them instead.

Bishnois have also lost their lives protecting blackbuck and chinkara from poachers. In fact, the first Amrita Devi Bishnoi Wildlife Protection Award was posthumously presented to Ganga Ram Bishnoi in 2001 after he was gunned down by hunters he was chasing for having killed a chinkara.

Such protection encourages antelopes to live around villages. They are said to recognise the people by their traditional clothes and skitter away if any outsider approaches. They also wander into fields, eating pearl millet (bajra), wheat, and mustard. But the Bishnoi traditionally don’t see this as a problem. They say they plant extra rows of grain for the wild animals and refuse to fence their fields or chase them away. It’s another matter that the younger generation isn’t as accepting of such losses.

Shenanigans of the night

All of this is to say that if Khan thought his crime would go unnoticed or given a quiet burial, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

According to a driver’s testimony, Salman Khan killed two chinkara in Bhawad, north of Jodhpur, on the night of September 26, 1998, and apparently had them cooked into a meal. He didn’t bag any the following night, but it was not for lack of trying. On the night of September 28, in the company of Saif Ali Khan, he killed another chinkara or a blackbuck — reports vary — in nearby Mathania. There’s no information if they ate this animal too.

Three nights later, the hunting party grew. The two Khans and three women actors headed south of Jodhpur to Kankani where Salman Khan reportedly shot two blackbuck.

The stars of the night sky were misaligned that night. Or rather, the actor was brash enough to open fire near a Bishnoi village, attracting the attention of one inhabitant. That villager roused another, and they gave chase on a motorcycle. The poachers abandoned the carcasses and fled into the night. When the Bishnoi men couldn’t stop the SUV, they noted its licence plate number and filed a complaint with the Forest Department the next day. The investigation revealed the actors’ shenanigans of the previous nights.

The Rajasthan High Court acquitted Khan in the Bhawad and Mathania cases, and the Supreme Court will hear the appeals. The driver, the main eyewitness, in those two cases disappeared fearing for his life and re-surfaced after the acquittal.

Unlike those two cases, the third one stuck, although it threatened to become a farce in the initial stages of the investigation. The first post-mortem report of the antelopes stated they died of “over-eating” and “leaping”. It took a second examination to establish the animals had been shot. Through it all, the Bishnoi eyewitnesses and their people didn’t waver even though they said they had come under pressure to withdraw the case.

It was this combination that led to the conviction of the superstar who is now out on bail. And we may yet see the guilty being punished.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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Printable version | Mar 22, 2020 1:16:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/if-salman-khan-thought-his-crime-would-be-given-a-quiet-burial-he-couldnt-have-been-more-wrong/article23615901.ece

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