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Bon Bibi Legend and 'Ethnic Cleansing' of India's Forests

Amitav Ghosh

(Photo A: Cburnett)

Tiger from the Sundarbans

The world famous Indian writer Amitav Ghosh likes to tell the Bon Bibi story of the Sundarbans mangrove forests from West Bengal and Bangladesh: "The jungles of 'the country of eighteen tides' were then the realm of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful demon king, who held sway over every being that lived in the forest - every animal as well as every ghoul, ghost and malevolent spirit. Towards mankind he harboured a hatred that was coupled with insatiable desires; he had a limitless craving for the pleasures of human flesh, and when overcome by desire he would take the form of a tiger in order to hunt human beings.
(..) Alone and disconsolate, the boy went into the forest to collect an armful of firewood. On his return he found his misgivings confirmed: the ships were gone. It was in that moment of abandonment, as he stood alone on the riverbank, that he caught a glimpse of an enormous body covered with shimmering stripes of black and gold. The animal was none other than Dokkhin Rai, in tiger's guise."

More effective than anti-littering laws

According to Ghosh uses "the Bon Bibi legend the power of fiction to create and define a relationship between human beings and the natural world. Nowhere does a term equivalent to 'Nature' figure in the legend of Bon Bibi, yet nowhere is its consciousness absent.
(..) Take for instance the belief that the wild parts of the forest are the domain of Dokkhin Rai: the corollary of this is the idea that to leave signs of human penetration is to invite retribution from the demon. So powerful is this prohibition that villagers will not urinate, defecate or spit while collecting honey or firewood. And let there be no doubt that the fear of the demon's wrath is far more effective than secular anti-littering laws - for in the order of preventive sanctions, a municipal fine can scarcely be counted the equal of the prospect of death by agency of storms and floods, tigers and crocodiles."


"In the 19th century, the generally accepted view among academically trained European foresters was that the presence of people was always a threat and never an asset to forests: it was thought that where woodlands survived it was despite rather than because of the people who lived in and around them.
(..) Although the Forest Department has now been subsumed under the Ministry of Forests and Environment, it continues to wield a near-imperial authority over its vast dominions: this is indeed a veritable inland empire, whose authority weighs upon a hundred million people - and on none more heavily than those who live in the vicinity of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
(..) In effect, over many decades, there has been a kind of 'ethnic cleansing' of India's forests: indigenous groups have been evicted or marginalised and hotel chains and urban tourists have moved in.
(..) The Forest Department is no different from any other arm of government, in that some of its officers are idealistic and competent while others are corrupt and inefficient. But it so happens that the Forest Department holds sway in areas where there is little oversight, which means, unfortunately, that there is often greater scope for the abuse of bureaucratic power.
(..) The consequences of this exclusivist approach have been harmful not just for the 'ecosystem people' but also for the very environment it sought to protect."

Choose between 'tigers and tribals'

About the Forest Rights Act Ghosh writes: "Modest though these proposals are, the Act has been stalled by a coalition that includes the forest bureaucracy, some members of Parliament and a few well-intentioned conservationists whose experience and idealism are beyond question. This group has turned the Forest Rights Bill into an issue where the state must choose between 'tigers and tribals'. (..) Their proposals for the rectification of the situation are, in effect, of a paramilitary nature."

"(..) While political disempowerment may have been more the rule then the exception in Asia and Africa of the late 20th century, it would be a mistake to imagine that this will continue forever. Soon refugees displaced by forest reserves will learn to organise; many will join those who have already taken to arms; others will form vote blocs and elect representatives who will carry their grievances to Parliament."

(Photo C: Bri Vos)

Mangrove forest.

(Photo E: Anirban Biswas)

(Photo F: V. Malik from New Delhi and Pune, India)

The Bon Bibi deity.

(Photo G: Frances Voon)

(Photo B: Joiseyshowaa)

Sunset at Sundarbans.

Read more: 'Wild Fictions', 7 page article from Amitav Ghosh in Word, 7 photos; 400 KB.

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