Saffron trumps green: How

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Saffron trumps green: How 'AOL vs environment' debate turned communal

The controversy

  • Sharad Yadav has demanded Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's arrest for damaging the environment through his World Culture Festival

  • Despite criticism, PM Narendra Modi attended the inauguration of the Festival

  • Hindutva groups are terming opposition to the event as an attack on Hinduism

More in the story

  • Sharad Yadav's attack, BJP's defence

  • How an environment issue became communal

  • NGT's climbdown

Art of Living's World Culture Festival was inaugurated in Delhi on Friday evening. But the festival would be remembered more for the controversies that surrounded it, than the event itself.

Raising the issue in the Lok Sabha earlier on Friday, Janata Dal United (JD-U) chief Sharad Yadav demanded the arrest of the Art of Living founder and spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for flouting environmental norms by organising the festival.

Also read - Sri Sri won't go to jail for not paying the NGT fine. This Navy Commodore could

"Why is no action being taken against the organiser? Is the government repaying the godman for his support earlier?" Yadav asked, adding ''Is he (Sri Sri) above the law of the land?".

Yadav earlier advised Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to attend festival, given the controversies surrounding it. "The President opted out, the PM should also do the same," Yadav said.

Modi, however, didn't heed Yadav's advice and attended the event.

Support for Art of Living

In just a couple of days, the Art of Living turned from being nearly banned from carrying out its mega event on Yamuna floodplains, to getting support from both the judiciary and the executive. And Hindutva hardliners.

The NGT allowed AOL to pay the Rs 5 crore fine imposed on it a day later, backing down on its earlier threat to cancel the event if it wasn't paid in time.

Earlier, Supreme Court junked a plea filed by a farmers group asking the Art of Living event be stopped. The court told Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Samiti that they had come too late. "So you seek publicity out of it?" a bench comprising Chief Justice TS Thakur said. It told the petitioners to approach the National Green Tribunal.

Meanwhile, the NGT backed down after Art of Living refused to pay the Rs 5 crore fine imposed on it by 4 pm. The NGT had earlier said it will cancel the AOL event if the money is not in.

Earlier in the day, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said in a TV interview that AOL will not pay the fine as it has done "nothing wrong", and that he is willing to go to jail for it.

The NGT finally said that the fine can be paid before the event begins in the evening on 11 March.

The Art of Living event, which is expected to draw over 2 lakh visitors from 11-13 March, is being held on the sensitive Yamuna floodplains in Delhi. The NGT had held on 9 March that the event threatens to permanently damage parts of the Yamuna river's ecosystem.

JD(U) president Sharad Yadav has demanded the arrest of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

But it allowed the event to take place, given the delay in filing the plea against it, but imposed a Rs 5 crore initial fine to be paid by AOL.

A technical team of the NGT will visit the premises after the event and assess the level of damages done to the floodplains, and fine the AOL accordingly.

The 5 crore fine is a pittance compared to what an earlier panel had estimated. The NGT-appointed panel, headed by the Water Sources secretary Shashi Shekhar had estimated restoration costs to be around Rs 100-120 crore. AOL had told the NGT that it spent Rs 25 crore on the event.

Also read - Isn't it odd? Even Kejriwal kept quiet on Art of Living damage

The Hindutva angle

Yet, the event saw communalisation from both BJP leaders and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

The Parishad compared the Rs 5 crore to the 'Jizya Tax', said to be a tax levied on Hindus by the Mughal kingdom. "How can the seculars tolerate an event that is being organised to showcase India's religious, cultural and spiritual heritage to the world," VHP's press statement signed by joint secretary Surendra Jain said.

Union minister Venkaiah Naidu lent his support to the AOL event. The minister said that opposition to it was motivated against Hinduism, "Anything that is Hindu, India, Bharatiya, you object." This was in response to Congress' allegations that the government had not done its job of regulating the AOL event. Even the NGT had held in its 9 March order that agencies of both the central and the Delhi government did not do their jobs.

VHP compared the NGT's Rs 5 crore fine on AOL to the Mughal era Jizya tax

A day earlier, BJP MP Maheish Girri had called the AOL event "historic and unprecedented".

Hindutva trolls have been tweeting about Batla House area and its proximity to the Yamuna, saying that environmentalists and the NGT are unfairly treating the AOL event because of "vote bank politics".

In his TV interview today, Ravi Shankar too mentioned Batla House.

"Starting from top spiritual leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to Hindu Mahasabha goons, everyone is trying to communalise a matter which is essentially an environmental issue. It has nothing to do with any political party or any religious group. This is just the fate of the Yamuna that we are discussing," one of the petitioners in the case Vimlendu Jha told Catch.

Jha had been threatened outside the NGT premises yesterday by Hindu Mahasabha leaders, who likened his fate with that of M M Kalburgi, who was killed allegedly by Hindu hardliner groups.

"It is an issue of environmental degradation, violation of the law of the land, violation of the NGT order of January 2015, and lack of due diligence by the various concerned agencies. All of this has come out very clearly in the NGT order. So by trying to polarise, these agencies are actually trying to show disrespect to the law of the land," said Himanshu Thakkar, convenor of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

More in Catch - Environment ministry had the power to stop AOL event. Why didn't it?

NGT committee member CR Babu disagrees with approval given to AOL event

Between the lines: NGT didn't stop #AOL event, but there's more to its order

Nihar Gokhale

Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale