Sunday, February 24, 2008

To save tigers in Sunderbans, halt Arabisation

To save tigers, halt Arabisation
Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli
It's been a bad week for tigers. A pregnant tigress, which had strayed into a village in the Sunderbans, was chased and beaten; she barely escaped with her life. Another tiger, an ageing male, which had strayed into an adjacent village, was lucky not to meet a similar fate. But at Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh, a tiger died after being shot by poachers. The proud animals that once stalked vast tracts of our land, feared and venerated by the masses and hunted for perverse pleasure by India's dissolute 'royalty', are now reduced to struggling for survival in ever-shrinking forests that are supposed to be protected by the Government. The latest census presents an alarming picture: Our tiger population is down to 1,411 and dwindling fast.
When it comes to paying lip service to the plight of tigers, everybody does so -- politicians, bureaucrats, animal rights activists, forest rangers and national park guards are equally vocal on the need to save the big cats from going the way of the dodo. But precious little is being done to prevent poaching and halt the shrinking of forest cover. A slothful criminal justice system has made the task of saving this endangered species more difficult: Sansar Chand, a poacher and smuggler of contraband wildlife products who emptied Sariska of its tigers as the Rajasthan Government snored in blissful sleep, was arrested by Delhi Police on June 30, 2005. Two-and-a-half years later, he has been sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment in one case while other cases are dragging on in lower courts. By the time the appeal process is over, he will have done his time, tigers will have become an extinct species and media will have moved on to other 'exciting' news. Such is justice in this wondrous country of ours.
None of us would have heard about a non-descript village called Deulbari in the Sunderbans, the mangrove delta where the muddy, silt-laden water of Hooghly merges with the sea in Bay of Bengal through innumerable estuaries. The water rises and falls as the tide moves in and ebbs in a cycle that has remained unchanged even as the profile of the Sunderbans has changed, first slowly in the last two centuries, and then rapidly, propelled by factors other than human greed. Deulbari featured on the front pages of national newspapers and on prime time television news after a pregnant tigress strayed near the village. Given the fact that tigers in the Sunderbans are born man-eaters (various theories exist to explain this fact, including the salinity of the water they drink) it is natural that the villagers should have reacted with fear. Nobody, not even animal rights activists, would want to be mauled to death and devoured by a tiger - or a tigress, for that matter.
Therefore, it would have been understandable if the villagers had chased the tigress back to the forest where she came from, or informed forest department officials who are trained to deal with such situations. Instead, they surrounded the cowering animal and hurled stones at it. Dazed and desperate, the tigress tried to claw her way up a young palm tree. Amused by her 'antics', the villagers lit a fire under the tree, which singed the tigress's skin. Thankfully, some forest department officials had arrived by then and they used a tranquilliser gun to bring the tigress, roaring in pain and agony, under control. Later, she was released in the forest from where she had strayed into human habitation.
The conflict between man and beast in the Sunderbans is age-old, each trying to survive against odds. Ever since the first settlers came to reclaim land for paddy cultivation, this conflict has existed. Richard M Eaton, in his fascinating study, Human Settlement and Colonisation in the Sunderbans, says, "For several centuries after 1200, the Bengal delta saw two frontiers, both of them moving -- a cultural frontier dividing Turk and Bengali and an agrarian frontier dividing forest and field." Muslim rulers gave 'land grants' to those willing to "settle new areas and pay revenue/tribute to the state". Since grants were also given to religious institutions and families associated with them, the process of converting forest into field "went hand in hand in certain areas with the Islamisation of local populations".
Yet, while converting forest into field or foraging for honey and firewood, the settlers were mindful not to disturb the predators or rob them entirely of their habitation. Both Hindus and Muslims forged a common faith of sorts in the power of the forest and its beasts (symbolised by the 'demon king' Dokkhin Rai) and in a protector who could keep the beasts of the forest at bay (Bon Bibi). Conventional wisdom would suggest that both Bon Bibi and Dokkhin Rai are part of India's elaborate 'Hindu' folklore to which Muslim peasants and gatherers also blindly subscribed, but they aren't. In his essay, 'Wild Fictions: Narratives of Nature and the Politics of Forests', celebrated author Amitav Ghosh (whose novel, The Hungry Tide, deals with life in the Sunderbans) provides an interesting version of the origin of three deities, Bon Bibi, Shah Jongoli and Dokkhin Rai, intimately associated with life in the Bengal delta.
According to this version, the legend of Bon Bibi begins in the Islamic holy city of Medina in distant Arabia. After much prayer and penance, a childless Sufi faqir is blessed with twins -- a girl, Bon Bibi, and a boy, Shah Jongoli. When the twins come of age, Archangel Gabriel tells them that they have been chosen for a divine mission in distant 'aathhero bhaatir desh', the land of 18 tides, to make it fit for human habitation. And so Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli arrive in the Sunderbans, over which Dokkhin Rai held sway. In the battle that follows, Dokkhin Rai's forces are defeated, but he is not killed. Instead, Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli demarcate those tracts of the forests that will be his to control, the rest will be for men to till -- an unwritten pact between tigers and settlers to be honoured by both. Several stories exist about Bon Bibi's prowess; the most popular is about how she saved a young boy, Dukhey, from Dakkhin Rai. These stories are the foundation of the faith reposed in Bon Bibi and the reluctance to disturb nature's balance by offending Dokkhin Rai.
Or, if Deulbari is any indication, they were the foundation of a composite faith that transcended religion. Obviously, the legend of Bon Bibi, Shah Jongoli and Dokkhin Rai has begun to wear thin. This could be because of three reasons: Modernisation that demands rejection of tradition; Marxist repudiation of all that is rooted in this land; and, Arabisation of Islam in India. The first and second can be reversed; the third needs to be halted. For that, let's begin by imposing a ban on Tablighis entering the Sunderbans.

1 comment:

sarangis said...

immense!the closest we ever came to doing anything at all for the tiger population was declining to do some land registration work on the outskirts of a national park in m.p and informing m.s belinda wright about it.the forest rights bill infact in states as jharkhand and other states should be abolished and national parks /sanctuaries across the country joined to the extent possible for the creation of a national park of that scale.regards sumay