The students were confounded. Some looked at those standing next to them and felt reassured: they weren’t the only ones.

Stand on your knees with palms resting on the floor, then take the left knee forward and raise your right arm? A bizarre set of instructions indeed. The lesser of them couldn’t hold themselves back any longer. Soon, the entire auditorium with around 80 students of Billabong International School was in splits.

Savita Harish, the instructor for the session, was clearly more comfortable dealing with adults than children. “You need to maintain silence,” she pleaded. “Yoga is nothing but peace.”

This time, the teachers joined in the laughter, helpless at the sight of the rogue bunch derailing the proceedings. It’s funnier when you are not the one in charge.

The celebrations for the International Yoga Day on June 21 had already kicked off in the neighbouring India but nearly 2,000 km away, Maldives was only just warming up. The last time the students of this school in Malé, the capital of the island nation, were made to go through such contortions was exactly a year ago. The nervous laughter thus didn’t come as a surprise.

The workshop lasted for 30 minutes went off smoothly, as did the six that followed. It wasn’t unusual but came as a relief for the officials at the Indian embassy. Unlike the last time, the celebrations this year were tainted by right-wing extremists.

Egyptian fatwa

On June 18, Sheikh Sameer, a scholar from the religious NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf in Malé, took to social media to discourage people from participating in the International Yoga Day. "It is not permissible for Muslims to do yoga because it is part of Hinduism," wrote Sameer. He then cited a fatwa issued by a scholar from Al Azhar University in Egypt in 2004: "Yoga is an ascetic Hindu practice, which should not be adopted as a sport or a worship."

Within hours, his posts and tweets were shared hundreds of times by critics and supporters.

“This is the first time that we heard such voices,” said Savita Harish. She, along with her husband, has been conducting free yoga classes at the Indian Cultural Centre in Malé since 2012. In Maldives, Muslims make up nearly 99% of the population. Keeping in mind the local sensibilities, Savita omits words like "Om", considered a Hindu chant, in her sessions.

A native of Bangalore, Savita has seen yoga getting increasingly popular in the Maldives over the years. One of the popular local television channels now has such sessions as a part of its programming. Several island resorts in the country’s tourism-heavy economy have identified its potential and conduct yoga sessions along the country’s pristine white sand beaches.

The murmurs of protest on the social media didn’t spill out on the streets. However, for its political observers, this was part a trend far more sinister. Shahinda Ismail, executive director of Maldives Democracy Network, explained that Maldives has had a record of using religion as a mobilising force.

“It’s a conscious choice on part of the government to not stop them,” said Ismail. “By increasing fear of the Islamists, the government can tap into them whenever it wants to.” It has been done before: once to topple ex-President Mohamed Nasheed in 2012 and then by its incumbent President Abdulla Yameen to secure power in 2013.

“They usually speak up against Indian music, dance and Western culture," she said. "Until now, yoga was never a problem.”

Reached for comment, the Jamiyyathul Salaf wasn’t too forthcoming. Its vice president Hassan Moosa Fikree texted to say, “Me or even other members of our NGO are not willing to respond to Indian reports regarding yoga or any other issue.” In another text, he explained why: “The Indian media was spreading lies about our NGO, regarding recruiting people to Jihad and Syria.”

Pushing ahead

Unfazed by the resistance, organisers at Indian Culture Centre, an arm of the Indian embassy, pushed ahead with the events. Ahead of the eve, a series of tester sessions were held across various atolls in the country. After conducting a “yogathon” in several schools on Tuesday, the day wound to a closing ceremony by a beach in Malé. Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon and Indian ambassador Akhilesh Mishra were to attend it as the chief guests.

The event started 20 minutes after schedule, only after Maumoon and Mishra had arrived. The Indian ambassador was at his sugary best, starting off with greetings in Dhivehi, expressing his gratitude to this “beautiful, great country”, its government to whom he owed “profound gratitude”, and was full of homilies for the minister who had “deeply touched” them by her presence.

Maumoon, too, played her part of diplomatic deference, and emphasised on carrying forward the country’s “India-first foreign policy.” Neither made any mention of the extremists that could have soured the event.

Mohammed Khaliq, the director of Indian Cultural Centre, later explained what kept them going in the unstable climate. “India and Maldives are very similar,” he said. “We eat the same food, we sing the same songs."

He added: “You have extremists everywhere. Let them say what they want to. But the show must go on.”

Credit: Omkar Khandekar
Credit: Omkar Khandekar