Sri Sri, Art of Living and their connection with Kashmir

The AoL’s stated objective in Kashmir is to “wean away youth from violence” through a number of programmes, including a leadership initiative.

Written by Muzamil Jaleel , Johnson T A | Srinagar/bengaluru | Updated: September 7, 2016 1:31 pm
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AMID the unrest in Kashmir, triggered by the killing of Burhan Wani last month, a photo of the militant’s father Muzaffar Wani with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at the spiritual leader’s Art of Living (AoL) ashram in Bengaluru last week has sparked a buzz in the Valley.

Wani said he discussed the situation in Kashmir as a “common man” during the visit to undergo treatment, but AoL insiders told The Indian Express that the two-day visit was the result of efforts over several years to build bridges with various sections of Kashmiri society, including the separatist Hurriyat Conference.

“There is a need to calm down the anger on the streets and Guruji is doing that,” Shama Sondhi, who has been a part of AOL’s Kashmir operations since the beginning in 1994, told The Indian Express. “Guruji has a divine presence and if he can help in Syria, why wouldn’t he intervene to bring peace in Kashmir?”

The AoL’s stated objective in Kashmir is to “wean away youth from violence” through a number of programmes, including a leadership initiative. It has maintained a low profile while it works closely with the government.

“We have more than 3,000 people connected to us directly from across Kashmir. We have young boys and girls, school teachers, business people, government servants, etc, who go to their mohallas and villages and rope in more people. But we have stayed low-key to avoid unnecessary attention,” said Sondhi.

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But Sri Sri’s tweet on Wani on August 27, along with a photo of him with Wani, has brought the group under the limelight, especially in the Valley. The tweet said: “Muzaffar Wani, the father of Burhan Wani was in the ashram for the last 2 days. We discussed several issues.”

“Sri Sri and Mr Wani discussed about the current situation, about the suffering and how peace and normalcy can be restored in the valley.

It was purely on a personal and humanitarian angle,” AoL Foundation said in a statement.

Wani arrived in Bengaluru on August 25, accompanied by a mediator, said sources in Karnataka police who were alerted by airport officials. “The mediator was a man aged around 50, from AoL,” said a police source.

Central intelligence agencies claimed to have not received any information of Wani’s visit until his arrival in Bengaluru. “It was arranged entirely by AoL,” said a source.

Then, last Thursday, Sri Sri tweeted that he had met Kashmiri religious leader Ghulam Rasool Hami, who heads Karawan-e-Islami, a Valley-based Barelvi group, and “had detailed discussion on Kashmir issue”.

In 2011, Sri Sri had held meetings with Hurriyat leaders, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, to discuss ways to establish peace in the Valley. “They are respectable and important persons,” Sri Sri had said at the time while calling for their inclusion in talks. According to records of the meeting on the AoL website, Mirwaiz had said “Sri Sri was an advocate of humanitarian values and Kashmir is a humanitarian issue”.

This June, Sri Sri visited Kashmir again, met Mirwaiz at his home. A few years ago he also reportedly shared the stage at an event with Syed Ali Geelani.

On June 12, the AoL founder tweeted: “Met with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Hurriyat Leader & heard his perspective of the situation in Kashmir”. Sri Sri also met J&K Governor N N Vohra and the BJP’s Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh.

“Guruji has been coming to Kashmir since 1998 and has been trying to help bring peace here. He has been talking to people here,” said Sondhi, the AoL representative who is a Kashmiri Pandit associated with the organisation for the last 24 years.

Having started operations in J&K in 1994, AoL claims it has “launched several initiatives aimed not only at restoring peace, but also at alleviating the suffering of people”. For instance, it claims that its youth leadership training programmes — to turn “misguided youth into physically strong, mentally alert and morally responsible individuals” — have covered about 2,200 people from 12 districts.

Along with International Association for Human Values, a sister organisation, AoL has been running seven specific programmes in the Valley: “Peace Initiative and Conflict Resolution, Prisoners SMART (Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training), Trauma Relief and Disaster Management, Rural Development, Schools for Underprivileged, Woman Empowerment and Environmental Awareness”.

According to Sondhi, the organisation works closely with the government, and the Army and paramilitary forces, “running campaigns to build trust among surrendered militants and enlist the locals in initiatives like the Indian Army’s Sadbhavna programme”.

“Army and BSF men are here primarily to earn their livelihood and the people are hostile to them. They live with a lot of stress,” said Sondhi. “Guruji is also an important member of Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The J&K government has made him a member,” she said.

Recalling their work in the initial days when “militancy was at its peak” — the first AoL session had 20 people — Sondhi said that “even a few militants” were part of one training camp in Sonmarg. “If a person attends our programme, he will give his life but would never take anybody else’s life… We don’t talk about any religion in Kashmir, and the discourse is based on human values,” she said.

According to her, Sri Sri takes a keen interest in “making militants in prisons give up their violent past” and has “met with more than 300 convicted militants in the high-security Kot Balwal” jail in Jammu. “The militants, too, are under a lot of stress… Their families go through a lot. And they know they will be killed. We wish to help them as well, she said.

One such initiative was set up on land provided by the government – an orphanage and school called Apna Ghar. “The government provided us with a building in Shivpora (Srinagar) where we had 127 children, many of them of slain militants,” said Sondhi. The project was halted after seven years, she said, when the building was destroyed in the floods of 2015.