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.
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.
A look at the twin controversies surrounding the Jain community that resulted in protests across the country.
The hill holds significance for the state’s tribal community as well. “The Santhals call it ‘Marang Buru’, the hill of the deity.
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.
and has tremendous potential to support thriving eco-tourism,” the final notification said.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.