Friday, July 2, 2010

The curious case of AOL

A month after the alleged shooting at its Bengaluru ashram, the Art of Living Foundation now confronts charges of land grabbing.
The allegation comes a day after AoL stated it had received extortion calls demanding Rs 42 crore (Rs 420 million), failing which the institution would be defamed.

Non-Resident Indian Paul P has alleged that AoL grabbed 15 acres of land on Kanakapura Road near Bengaluru where the AoL ashram is situated. Paul claimed he approached an intermediary, Agni Shridhar, after talks with AoL failed.

Paul said he bought the plot 12 years ago from a farmer named Mohan. However, Mohan's son Vijay refused to execute the sale deed.

"Even as I approached the court, Vijay handed the land over to AoL. When I met (AoL founder Sri Sri) Ravishankar two years ago, he promised to settle the issue, but now they are threatening me and asking me to forget about the land," Paul claimed.

Agni Shridhar, who was asked to mediate in the matter, said, "Ravishankar told me he was promoting Hinduism, and I should support him. Today they have cooked up a case of extortion against me."

The Foundation says it registered the plot in question after buying it legally from the owner, Vijay, on Feburary 5, 2007. 'The Art of Living has no association with Paul,' the ashram stated.

"Shridhar had visited the ashram with a proposal for initiating joint social development projects with his organisation as well as with other Dalit organisations. He requested the ashram authorities to review the projects. When senior faculty members visited Shridhar, instead of discussing the projects, he threatened to malign the organisation with the false allegations that he is currently making," ashram sources alleged.

After a couple of days, AoL faculty members started receiving threatening calls demanding Rs 42 crore to stop him (Shridhar) from defaming the organisation," the AoL sources claimed.

Sources in the Bengaluru police feel there is a constant effort by the ashram to get its security enhanced. Some members in the ashram, they add, feel if spiritual gurus like Baba Ramdev could be given 'Z' category security, why should Sri Sri Ravishankar be left out.

Police sources say there is no threat perception to Sri Sri Ravishankar, and hence the question of providing him 'Z' category security does not arise.

After the alleged shooting incident at the ashram on May 30, Ravishankar's security was enhanced.

A spokesperson for the ashram told that Sri Sri Ravishankar has always maintained that he did not want security as it would prevent him from meeting people.

"We have on many occasions been offered enhanced security, but we have refused it always," the AoL spokesperson added.

Ravishankar's take

Sri Sri Ravishankar, the founder of the Art of Living, has broken his silence on allegations of land grabbing against his Bengaluru-based foundation. He said, "We are compassionate but firm in dealing with anti-social elements. We will not budge or fall into the trap of miscreants. These tactics of threat and hiding behind fictitious stories will not work."

He urged the people to be patient and not to take law into their hands. "The truth will always triumph. An extortionist cannot hide under the garb of helping the downtrodden. This exercise of false propagation and instigation will not work. (Agni) Sridhar has threatened to malign us by using fabricated videos of women and then moved on to a non-existent land issue."

"The Art of Living foundation has spent crores of rupees on the welfare and relief of the poor and can never think of doing injustice to anyone ever," he added.

"While emphasising this and adhering to our stand, we also thank Sridhar for giving us an experience which we have never had. Ours is just one incident. There are many others who are reeling under the fear of money and muscle power and our sympathy and solidarity is with all of them."

"The land in question was bought by the Art of Living after checking all legal documents from M Vijay at the market price in 2004 as we needed land to accommodate the large number of devotees coming in for the silver jubilee of the Art of Living in 2006. Incidentally, the gentleman who we purchased the land from happens to be a Brahmin and not a Dalit as was misinformed by Sridhar in his allegation."

"The organisation has built toilets in many homes, made community centres in 20 villages around the ashram and is also giving free food along with education to 2,000 children of the neighbouring villages. Direct or indirect employment has been generated for hundreds of villagers around the ashram area.

"We urge the police to take action against forces who try to bring disharmony and thrive on false propagation. Our body of work over the past 30 years is known to all. We will continue to reach out to the masses with our development projects and stress-elimination programmes," he concluded.

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