“Behind every event, there is knowledge.
Behind every person, there is love.
Behind every object, there is infinity.”
Just a month before the World Culture Festival (WCF) while returning from an event in Pune, the young organizer who was driving me said, “Everything went so smooth.” I joked, “I thought I was being driven by a young man who would love challenges, not by a senior citizen.” I casually remarked that in the absence of challenges, it must have been very boring. Everyone in the car had a good laugh!
And then came WCF, full of challenges!
Finding an appropriate place in Delhi to accommodate the huge gathering that was expected from around the world was a real challenge as most of the options were either too far from the amenities or did not have easy access. The previous edition of the WCF in Germany had no such problem as it was held in the heart of Berlin.
The response to the festival from around the world and India was so huge that any stadium would have fallen short of holding even our volunteers just from Delhi. So, we approached Delhi Development Authority (DDA), who gave us permission to use the land on the banks of the Yamuna. The place was full of filth, rubble and stench. Though we knew that it would be an uphill task to make the place fit for the event, we opted for it as we felt it would prompt both the Central and Delhi governments to clean up the river. In India, things work better under pressure.
And the fun begins!
With just a month left for the event, the stage almost up and invitations out, a few activists wanted us to shift the venue and filed a complaint with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), alleging the event would harm the Yamuna floodplains. The attitude of the complainant is as if he is a messiah and the The Art of Living is a criminal. This attitude can easily mislead. We need to see through it and correct it. An organization which has been continuously working for environment protection was made to appear like a culprit while the people who had complained against us had no track record in environment care.
An NGT committee hypothetically concluded without any scientific evaluation that the event would cause a Rs 120-crore damage to the Yamuna floodplains. The committee arrived at this enormous figure after just going around the ground for about an hour while the stage was under construction.
Later an NGT bench slapped a compensation of Rs 5 crore on us, (which the media interpreted as fine) despite our having obtained all the required permissions and having followed the guidelines. It’s totally unjust. It is like giving a challan to someone for driving through a green light. What damage a three-day event could have caused compared to that from the countless sewerage drains which are freely let into the Ganga, Yamuna and other rivers? What are these activists doing about others who are openly polluting the environment? The NGT’s interim order coming on the eve of the World Culture Festival left us in a tight spot.
The same activists who have turned a blind eye to the several permanent constructions in the floodplains, got hyperactive to create obstacles for the event. It was obvious that they were singling out the Art of Living and targeting it. What were their intentions?
I have been exhorting people to stand up against injustice and I couldn’t just bow and take the unjust verdict. It’s not about the money, but about standing up for justice. We will contest this till the end.
Trial by Media
Some sections of the media also tried their level best to nail us. Despite casting a microscopic eye, they could find no fault, exposing their allegations to be hollow and frivolous.
One English newspaper aligned to a particular political party got so desperate to vilify the Art of Living that it screamed there was a dead man on the reception committee of the festival, referring to co-chair former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who had passed away less than a month before the event. It lost all sense of decency and decorum towards one of most respectable statesmen of the world. The same paper even portrayed a pile of garbage being collected by volunteers and waiting to be picked up by the disposal truck as the ‘art of littering’ by the Art of Living!
The bias and negative agenda became too obvious for the people to believe in them. A senior journalist even remarked that the Art of Living got caught in the political crossfire of Delhi, hinting that the actual target was the government.
Skill in Action
All these challenges demanded skillful handling from our volunteers and teachers which they did with aplomb. While many were hurt by the lies being spread, they put into practice the knowledge they have learnt. They remained calm despite provocations and saved themselves from getting sucked into negativity and anger. Though some of them out of sheer righteousness might have appeared a little arrogant.
After the conclusion of the event on 13th March 2016, I told the volunteers to take a day’s rest and start the clean-up from the next day. Such was their commitment that they were on the ground by 8 am on the 14th itself! Instead of dampening the spirit, the challenges infused more enthusiasm among our volunteers.
Some people say that I have taken favors from the government as Modi Ji is close to me. That means those people don’t know either Modi Ji or me. I have traveled around the world and in 35 years, I have never asked anyone for favours. At the same time, Modi Ji is known not to oblige anybody.
When I met the Prime Minister in December last year, I requested him to inaugurate the festival and asked if the 17 nallahs that drain into the Yamuna could be stopped to fix the foul smell. He shared the difficulty as the matter was under the Delhi government. I asked Delhi Chief Minister Shri Arvind Kejriwal for the same. While confirming his attendance, he said it would take at least two years to stop the drains.
The Art of Living is an apolitical organization and has always welcomed people from all parties. However, some parties seem to have a prejudice against us. When we wanted to invite Smt. Sonia Gandhi and Shri Rahul Gandhi, it proved impossible to meet them in person. Finally, our trustees had to drop the invitations in their offices. While ruling and opposition members of several countries attended the festival, some parties in India showed small-mindedness by not attending and also missed an opportunity to connect with the world. Little did they realize that they gave the benefit of the program entirely to the government. Even a well-known religious leader is reported to have worked behind the scenes dissuading others from attending the event.
A Blessing in Disguise
As the saying goes, everything is a blessing in disguise! If there was no controversy, the event may have passed quietly without any debate. Though it was for the first time the Art of Living got embroiled in a controversy, it not only helped in letting people know about the festival, but also opened the doors for people to express their sentiments which were in favour of the event. When TV channels polled people’s opinion on whether the program should be allowed to go ahead, an overwhelming majority responded positively.
As part of our vision to unite the world, everyone including all the embassies and the heads of states were invited. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a country with a large number of Art of Living members, accepted the invitation and was expected to attend the event with 37 members of his Cabinet.
When his office issued a press release in Harare to announce his plan to participate on all the three days of the festival, it created a storm. Our organizers in Europe and America started frantically calling us as many reputed people who were committed to take part in the event were furious and started withdrawing themselves. Nearly one hundred eminent leaders who were to take part in the WCF started expressing their discomfort. There was a risk of the World Culture Festival being reduced to be only an Indo African summit! I was even advised against sharing the stage with President Mugabe, which I don’t subscribe to. Though we wanted everyone to come, the protest from Europe and America was too much to handle for our organizers. We were in a catch 22 situation as it was not possible to withdraw the invitation to a head of a country at the eleventh hour.
When the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee sent a congratulatory message while expressing his inability to attend the event, it came like the biggest boon! We called President Mugabe’s office and informed them that it would not be appropriate for him to come as we would not be able to accord the right protocol since the President of the host country was not attending. They decided to cancel the trip. The Indian High Commission in Harare and the Zimbabwean High Commission in New Delhi supported the view.
The delegates who had either cancelled or were in the process of cancelling rebooked their tickets! Our organizers in 50 countries in Europe and America heaved a sigh of relief!
To be continued…