We Jains Protested Only To Protect Our Sacred Places — And Succeeded

We Jains Protested Only To Protect Our Sacred Places — And Succeeded

by Harshil Mehta - Jan 6, 2023 01:07 PM +05:30 IST
We Jains Protested Only To Protect Our Sacred Places — And SucceededA demonstration of the Jain community (Twitter)
  • Jains did not seek financial help or reservations from the government. Neither did they seek government intervention to rebuild their temples.

    All we want is that the sanctity of our holiest sites not be compromised. We want the dignity of these sites restored — nothing more, nothing less. 

The year 2023 started with unusual news from unexpected quarters. The protests by Jains and then the central government's action for pacification.

On the first day of the Gregorian new year, Jains took to the streets of Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad, carrying out rallies. Maharashtra's Tourism Minister, Mangal Lodha, took an oath not to shave his head or wear any footwear until a solution to the Jain issues was found. 

The protests soon spread like wildfire across different cities in the country, including but not limited to Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot, Jaipur and Dungarpur.

What happened after that is like a beacon of hope for the Jain community, which has been raising its voice on some of these issues for more than a year.

Though the national media has started giving coverage to their concerns, it was not enough to bring them into centre of national discourse. 

It may be unclear to those who are not familiar with the situation why a community comprising a small fraction — 0.4 per cent — of the total population was protesting or demonstrating on the roads.

The protests were primarily a result of issues related to two of the holiest sites for Jains in the country — Sammed Shikhar (Parasnath) hills Jharkhand, and Shetrunjay Hills (Palitana) in Gujarat. 

The former is honorarily called Shikharji. These are the hills where, according to Jain texts, 20 out of 24 Tirthankaras (colloquially, gods) attained moksha.

The temples standing today were lastly renovated by Viradhavala and Vishaldeva, the rulers of the Vaghela dynasty of Gujarat. During the reign of the Mughals, Akbar issued a firman to hand over the hills to the Jains for management and to prevent animal slaughter throughout the mountain.

The hills hold the place of utmost respect for the followers of both the sects of Jainism — Digambara and Shwetambara. Devout Jains undertake a barefoot pilgrimage to the hills, chanting sacred mantras and fasting the entire journey. 

In the past, the Jharkhand government, under BJP's Raghubar Das, started constructing helipad, cottages and treehouses to promote tourism and travel to the hills. The fear among the Jain community regarding this was that the influx of tourists will bring many side effects of commercial tourism and may also result in activities that damage the dignity and sanctity of the ancient site. 

Some of the fears were already realised when the tourists started flocking to the hills. Soon videos of liquor and meat being consumed on the hills went viral. Note that the Jains have been raising concerns over these matters for a long period of time. Even the National Commission of Minorities took cognizance of these in 2021.

After the protests in 2018, the Das government made a commitment not to undertake any development at the spot that can harm the sanctity of the hills in any way.

However, under Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's (JMM's) Hemant Soren, the present state government is again adamant about turning the hills into a centre of tourism. The Union Ministry of Environment also brought a notification to develop the hills as a ecotourism spot in August 2019.

The second issue is linked to the Shatrunjaya Hills at Palitana in the Saurashtra peninsula of Gujarat. They also hold the same respect in the Jain psyche, albeit majorly for Shwetambar Jains, for hosting more than 800 temples, some of which, in the present form, are more than a millennium old. 

These majestic temples, with their grand construction and Chalukya architectural style, stand as a testament to the wealth and power of the businessmen and kings who ruled Gujarat in the distant past. They serve as a symbol of the state's rich history and cultural heritage, and their beauty and significance continue to captivate visitors today.

The first Tirthankara, Aadinatha, is believed to have attained kevalgyaan (colloquially 'omniscience') and given his sermons here. Many of his followers are said to have achieved salvation at this holy site. These hills therefore hold a special significance in the Jain faith, and are revered as a place of spiritual enlightenment and liberation.

Now, this very sacred and historical place was being defiled by illegal mining, in addition to the selling of meat and illicit liquor around it, despite being banned on paper. When stopped, local villagers, reportedly provoked by Swami Sharanananda and Mana Rathod, sought to destroy the temples on the hills.

Soon it emerged that the the age-old footprints of Aadinatha were vandalised at the place called Rohishala in early December. At Surajkund, miscreants climbed on the temple and used provocative slogans. The harassment of Jain sadhus, sadhvis and devotees became a daily affair around the hills. 

Vandalised footprints of the deity at Rohishala, Palitana, Gujarat. Photo credits: Divya Bhaskar.
Vandalised footprints of the deity at Rohishala, Palitana, Gujarat. Photo credits: Divya Bhaskar.

Despite the disturbance caused by the provocateurs, the police only arrested one person. This inaction may encourage similar incidents in the future. 

In various cities and towns of Gujarat and at the site itself, protests have been happening since then, much in the absence of the attention of Delhi-based media, with a false hope that the Home Ministry of Gujarat, headed by a Jain himself, would deliver some justice.

As a Jain, the vandalised footprints of my deity, the provocative and anti-Jain slogans at places of worship and the violence happening at the very place where my Tirthankaras gave the sermons regarding Ahimsa are unacceptable to me.

This is why we, Jains, across the country, hit the roads. We did not demand financial support for the community or reservations for government jobs. But we did not want to compromise the sanctity of our holiest sites. We want the dignity of these sites restored — nothing more, nothing less.

It was late, but the intermediate solution and immediate action came nonetheless.

First, for Shikharji Hills. As news reached Delhi and Ranchi gradually, and media and civil society groups started building pressure, Hemant Soren requested the Union government to take appropriate measures regarding Parasnath Hills on 5 January.

On the same day, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change issued a notification to recognise "its sanctity and significance for the Jain community" and directed "the state government... to immediately take all the steps necessary". 

Second, for Shetrunjay Hills. The Gujarat government decided to form a new police outpost for the hills. The hills, it said, would be protected at the Deputy SP level with 1 PSI, 2 ASI, 3 Head Constables, and 12 Constables, apart from five traffic guards and five women home guards. It also formed an SIT to inquire about the incidents of vandalism in the temple. 

The way Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi are significant for Hindus, and five takhts are vital for Sikhs, Palitana and Sammed Shikharji, among other 14 tirthas, are paramount for Jains. 

It's time for the Jharkhand and Gujarat governments to follow up on their words with actions and restore and maintain the sanctity of the holy places.

Harshil Mehta is a columnist who writes on international relations, diplomacy, and national issues. He tweets @MehHarshil.
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