Art of Living yoga centre burnt down by unidentified attackers

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Mar 10, 2014.

Islamabad – An internationally affiliated yoga centre on the suburbs of Islamabad was set on fire by unidentified arsonists, in what might be a religiously- or nationalistically-motivated hate crime.

According to police, the “Art of Living” yoga centre in the Lakhwal area of Bani Gala was attacked by a group of eight to nine men at around 8:30pm on Saturday.

The centre, which is part of spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s global Art of Living movement for stress management and peace, is spread over around a quarter-of-an-acre of land.

Three rooms, including the centre’s office, were completely gutted in the attack, according to Art of Living member Meena Gabeena.

Bani Gala police said the centre’s owner Shahnaz Minallah had not received any specific threats, extortion-related or otherwise.

But sources familiar with Art of Living’s work said the attack might have been instigated by a programme aired by a private news channel in February which portrayed the art of living in a negative light.

The TV programme, according to sources, had made allegations about the centre’s funding sources and linked it with agencies in India. The TV programme was broadly about international NGOs in Pakistan.

The Art of Living foundation is a volunteer-based NGO headquartered in Bangalore, India. But the art of living yoga centres operate in over 150 countries worldwide. The centre in Bani Gala offers courses in meditation and yoga.

“Shahnaz is a peaceful person and the centre’s work is only about spreading peace and happiness,” Gabeena said.

The centre was closed for operation at the time of the attack and only two private security guards were on duty, a police officer at the Bani Gala police station said.

The police officer said the attackers, who had their faces covered, overpowered the centre’s guards and tied them up.

The attackers then proceeded to set the centre, which is built as an open space with a few rooms, ablaze with petrol they were already carrying with them, according to police.

Gabeena said earlier reports about the attackers looking to steal money were not true. She said the attackers wanted to burn another room of the centre, but they fled the scene when neighbours noticed the fire and tried to intervene.

No one was injured in the attack, according to police.

Police registered a case about the incident on a complaint from one of the security guards.

No arrests had been made till the filing of this report. Police said it might be difficult for them to trace the attackers since little is known about them. But they said the attackers took a cell phone from one of the guards which might be used to track them down.

The attackers are believed to have arrived at the centre on a car and police said they were trying to locate the car.

According to sources, Shahnaz built the yoga centre over a 10-year period as a labour of love. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar inaugurated the centre as an official Art of Living centre in 2012 during a visit to Pakistan.

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