Literally meaning the ‘knot of protection’, the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan epitomises the love between brothers and sisters, where a sister ties a rakhi (holy thread) on the wrist of her brother to ward off evil and in turn, he vows to protect her until death.
While the ritual has been practised in the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial, it is quite rare to find a tree being part of it.
Yet, the women of Muturkham, a tiny village in Purbi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, have been tying rakhis on the trees of the nearby Sal forest with a dedicated mission of protecting them for a lifetime.
Lead by Jamuna Tudu, close to 60 women have dedicated their lives to protecting the trees from the plundering clutches of forest mafia and poachers.
Now 37, it took Jamuna two decades to put together this group of vigilantes who take turns to patrol through the forest—mostly during morning, afternoon and evening but sometimes even during the night for fear of the trees being set to fire by the mafia in the form of revenge.
It all began in 1998 when Jamuna had entered the village following her wedding. Grown up in a family that loved and respected nature almost to God-like reverence, Jamuna was aghast when she noticed a number of trees that were chopped by village women themselves for household purposes.
This was in addition to the rampant felling of trees by an alleged mafia, who she claimed sold the wood to aid their drinking habits.
Jamuna, who had studied till class 10, had a clear understanding of the perils of deforestation and how the continuation of reckless felling could risk their very own survival.
Beseeching to the village folk and drawing their attention the age-old exploitation of Muturkham forest, Jamuna realised that the people knew what was going on but were too scared to oppose the ‘mafia’.
But the lady was not one to cower in the face of danger. Slowly, she started convincing the women that a bleak future awaited them if they don’t act. She even explained that by law and tribal rituals, it was illegal to fell trees down.
She was met with a lot of resistance initially. Going against the mafia meant going against the men of the village, who had willfully submitted to the threats of the former. The women had never been asked to do something that was downright outrageous.
But Jamuna didn’t give up. With unfaltering resilience, she kept imploring her community members until she managed to raise a band of 25 women and formed the Van Suraksha Samiti, under which they were fortified with bows and arrows, bamboo sticks and spears to tackle the enemies of their forest.
Seeing the women fighting for the forest with such courage and passion, even the men slowly started following the suit.
Easier said than done. Their struggle had not exactly been a bed of roses. Almost everyday, the villagers were ambushed or attacked by the mafia. Sometime between 2008 and 2009, the scuffles started taking a violent turn with stones being pelted at the villagers, leaving Jamuna and her husband Mansingh inflicted with many injuries.
Once, in the pitch dark, Mansingh ended up taking a stone on his head as he tried to protect his wife. Jamuna recalls the incident with a shiver, with the husband-wife duo almost losing their lives.
Life for tribal communities, like the one Jamuna and her people belong to, can’t exist without the forests. They require wood for everything.
But Jamuna believes that the forests have everything to satisfy one’s needs if approached judiciously. The naturally fallen trees and branches are quite enough for villagers to sustain throughout the year.
Impressed by Jamuna and her community’s commitment, the Forest Department ended up adopting Muturkham, which further paved way for amenities like water connections and a school in their village.
Her relentless pursuit of conserving nature managed to send ripples throughout the country.
In 2013, she was bestowed with the Godfrey Phillips Bravery Award under the ‘Acts of Social Courage’ category and last year, she was invited to the Rashtrapati Bhavan by none other than the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee – who wanted to meet the valiant lady and appreciate her efforts in conserving over 50 hectares of forestland.
In August, Jamuna was felicitated with the Women Transforming India Award by NITI Aayog, celebrating the outstanding achievements of women across the country.
Today, Jamuna, who is also known as Lady Tarzan of Muturkham, stands tall with close to 150 committees and more than 6,000 members supporting her crusade against deforestation.
In collaboration with various forest committees, she organises awareness campaigns across villages in Kolhan Division.
And like the promise she had made to the trees by tying rakhis across their girth, Jamuna intends to protect these trees till her last breath.
A salute to the brave lady whose conscious efforts towards forest conservation has not just motivated the people in her village but many generations to come.