One September morning, in the conference room of a plush hotel in Guwahati, a reporter asked Ravi Shankar an uncomfortable question. “Sri Sri,” the reporter began, referring to the spiritual guru’s peace efforts in the North East, “people are saying you are doing all this only to get the Nobel prize – is that true?”
Shankar, who had once questioned the credentials of the Nobel Committee for conferring the prize on the Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai, paused for a moment and then replied in an even tone: “I have been working for bringing peace to the North East for more than a decade. This is a very dear job to me, I never expect any kind of reward for this.”
The press meet came more than a fortnight after 68 militants in the state on August 14 gave up arms – which Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh credited to the efforts of Shankar and his Art of Living Foundation. The press meet was held on the sidelines of the North East Indigenous People’s Conference, a motley congregation of civil society organisations, student bodies, human rights defenders and former armed insurgents, brought together by Anup Chetia, the general secretary of the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam. Shankar, the founder of multi-crore spiritual organisation Art of Living, which is now diversifying into consumer goods, was the chair of the event.
Funded by International Association for Human Values, an Art of Living partner organisation that is registered in several countries and was founded by Shankar, the conference was announced following an assault on August 22 a few former ULFA militants in Assam’s Nagaon district, allegedly by Bengali-speaking traders suspected to have connections to the Bharatiya Janata Party,.
Many Assamese nationalists saw the Nagaon incident as an insult to the indigenous people of the state by perceived “outsiders”, and the conference was conceptualised by Chetia largely as an assertion of the region’s indigenous population. But with Shankar in the fray, it became more than just that. It was projected as a platform for the North East’s many disgruntled groups to come together, discuss their grievances, and come back to the mainstream – with the help of Shankar and the Art of Living.
The spiritual leader underlined this in his keynote address: “I want to bring happiness and prosperity to the people of the North East, but it can’t come with conflict.” For the first time, Shankar claimed, the “breakthrough” conference brought a “connect between the people of the region”. “There is a lot of effort to save bio-diversity, but very little to protect cultural diversity,” added Shankar whose organisation was recently fined by the National Green Tribunal for allegedly ruining the Yamuna floodplains.
Although Shankar’s interests in bringing peace to the North East, where several groups are fighting for complete or relative autonomy, go back more than a decade according to the spiritual guru’s associates in the region, it is only recently that they have been highlighted. In fact, it was just last month that Art of Living made news as a resolver of the conflict in the North East. “We don’t publicise our work,” Shankar insisted.
On August 14, 68 militants belonging to a range of Manipuri Meitei insurgent groups surrendered their arms in a highly-publicised “homecoming ceremony” held at the 1st Manipur Rifles banquet hall in Imphal. The surrendered militants, according to the Manipur government, included 17 cadres from the United National Liberation Front, 23 from the various factions of the Kangleipak Communist Party, four from the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup, seven People’s Liberation Army members and the rest from the Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak and its breakaway “progressive” faction.
The event was attended by the chief minister, who in a series of tweets, attributed the surrender to the “guidance” of Shankar. Singh then went on to thank Shankar for “restoring peace” in Manipur through his “tireless efforts and blessings”.
Shankar too tweeted a picture of the surrender ceremony, reiterating that “due to efforts of Art of Living teachers, 68 militants surrendered”. In a press release that followed, his organisation noted how “its faculty over several years played a major role in changing the hearts and minds of the cadres”.
However, the press release – or Shankar himself – did not quite elaborate what exactly this “major role” was. Or, for that matter, how the organisation had managed to convince these militants from the Meitei groups, some of the most hardened in the region, to shun their arms.
With both the government and Art of Living furnishing very few details on the sequence of events and given Manipur’s history of staged surrenders, questions, not surprisingly, have started to crop up about the authenticity of the August 14 ceremony – the first such since the new BJP government took over in March.
It didn’t help that the CorCom – as the joint coordination committee of the Kangleipak Communist Party, Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Progressive) and United National Liberation Front is known – refuted the claims of the government, calling the surrenders a “drama”. In a press statement, the committee claimed that most people who had turned up for the surrender ceremony had long left their respective organisations and had been working on the orders of the security forces and had been “randomly gathered and presented to the public in a fresh avatar”.
But the scepticism about the surrenders – among the media, Manipur residents and even some in the government – does not stem from the CorCom’s denial, which was perhaps only natural.
First was that the size of the cache of arms supposedly recovered from such a large group of militants was underwhelming. A total of eight arms were recovered from the 68 militants: three AK series rifles, one Lethode gun, and four pistols, said a senior police officer of the Manipur police’s special branch, who was closely associated with the process. By way of explanation, the officer, who sought to remain anoymous, said: “See, militants prefer not to carry their arms because if they do there are more chances of them being targeted for retribution.”
There are also murmurs about the fortuitous timing of the surrender – a day before India’s Independence Day.
In the North East, “homecoming” ceremonies, marking the mass surrender of militants, on and around Independence Day, are routine for evident symbolic reasons – most of these groups perceive the Indian state as a colonising force of sorts that they wish to attain autonomy from.
Inevitably, surrenders around the time when India celebrates its freedom from British Rule invoke suspicions of being stage-managed. When asked about the felicitous timing of the latest homecoming ceremony, the police officer said it was a “coincidence”. Charting out the sequence of events, he said that the 68 militants “were assembled in the six IRB [Indian Reserve Battalion] camp on August 12”. Twenty three of them, he said, “were arranged by Assam Rifles”. “The rest surrendered to the district police,” he claimed. “I did a physical check [met the purported militants in person] on the 13th.”
What then was the role of Art of Living? The 45 who surrendered to the police, the officer said, were “coordinated” by Art of Living. A former militant of the now-dissolved United People’s Party of Kangleipak, who is a now volunteer with the Art of Living Foundation, had helped the police connect to the militants “through mobile phone”, the special branch officer stated.
Incidentally, in May, the Manipur government came up with a new surrender policy, revising the monthly stipend for surrendered militants from Rs 4,000 to Rs 8,000, and hiking the one-time financial grant given to them to Rs 4 lakh from Rs 2.5 lakh. These new militants will be among the first to receive the increased one-time reward.
‘They admire Guruji’
Deepa Dave, head of the Art of Living centre in Manipur, said the surrender process began when a Kangleipak Communist Party militant, currently housed in a Guwahati jail, contacted his family members in Imphal. The militant, she claimed, had instructed his family to get in touch with Shankar and inform him that some people wanted to surrender. “They got in touch with us,” she claimed. “We went and met him [the militant] and then the government stepped in.”
But why did a Manipuri militant in a Guwahati prison reach out to a spiritual guru based in Bengaluru? According to Dave, it is because Shankar had been working in the state since 2008 and had gained the “trust of many people”.
“They admire Guruji,” said Dave. “All the trust took a lot of time to build. We have coached 1,000 jailed inmates in Manipur till now. In 2008, we took 200 surrendered militants to our ashram in Bangalore, gave them skill-training, and most of them even found employment after that.”
The surrender of these 68 militants, Dave said, was “not success [but] just the beginning”.
In the Imphal valley, though, there are very few takers for this story. A senior BJP leader of the state said that it was clear to anyone who attended the ceremony that not all of them were “hardcore UGs” (underground group members). “Yes, some of the them, they were there, maybe 20, but most of them were very old,” he claimed. “But definitely not everyone. It didn’t look to me from my interaction with them,” said the leader, who didn’t want to be identified.
There was even more cynicism about Shankar’s role, which even some within the government claim was “exaggerated” by the chief minister.
“He is a politician, there are compulsions,” said an official in the chief minister’s office. Another BJP leader claimed the chief minister’s public acknowledgment of Shankar’s role “didn’t reflect the entire government’s view”. “The CM must have been touched by the guru,” quipped the leader.
The official said that one of the most well-known faces among the 68 surrendered militants, senior People’s Liberation Army leader Jame, was nearing his 70s and “was out of it for a while”. “These groups have their general body meetings, and he wasn’t elected, so he left after that,” the official claimed.
Many in Manipur’s civil society groups echoed these claims, but did not wish to speak on the record. “This new government seems like it does care a bit about human rights unlike the previous government,” said an activist, underlining the need to work with the government and pick its battles.
A human rights activist from the state, expressing his doubts over the surrenders, said it was “well-known that Army and particularly the Assam Rifles had these huge networks of people who are used for espionage activities”. He claimed that many of these people had deserted the insurgent groups they once belonged to or formed new factions on their own. Most of these splinter groups, he claimed, were aligned to the security forces. He cited the example of Kangleipak Communist Party, which has nearly a dozen splinter groups. Among the 68 militants who surrendered on August 14, 23 belonged to various factions of the outfit – the highest among all groups. The activist said it was highly likely most of 68 militants were of such vintage.
When confronted with these allegations, the special branch officer, who was closely associated with the surrender, said the police were still “verifying” the identities of the surrendered cadres. “The verification process is not complete, it is still going on,” he said. “But yes, some of them were old, not all.”
CM backs the guru
In an interview with Scroll.in, Chief Minister N Biren Singh backed the version given out by the Art of Living’s Dave. “After the KCP [Kangleipak Communist Party] militant in Guwahati reached out to Ravi Shankar ji, the Art of Living people went to meet him in the jail,” he said. “Then Ravi Shankar ji informed me that some people want to join the mainstream, I said ‘most welcome’. Then with a little bit from the government side, the number [of the surrendered militants] has been increased.”
Singh conceded that many of the 68 had deserted their camps a while back. “They were looking for a proper forum to join, were hiding here and there,” he claimed. “Earlier there was no confidence, no faith in the government even though many people wanted to join the mainstream.”
When asked about the underwhelming arm cache, the chief minister claimed that there were more arms – “at least eight-10 of them”, which had not been made public during the surrender ceremony.
Officials in the state’s security establishment denied knowledge of any additional arms.
The 68 militants, Singh said, were housed in a camp in Bishnupur district. Requests to interview them were turned down by the chief minister’s security advisors. The Art of Living’s Dave claimed the organisation’s volunteers were imparting a “youth leadership training programme” to these former militants at the Bishnupur camp.
At the Guwahati conference, Shankar dismissed concerns about the surrender being staged. “Of course, some people will say,” he said. “But if it were not genuine, we wouldn’t have even claimed it. Some 300 more people are expected to follow suit soon.” Shankar added that his peace mission in the North East was a work in progress and he would only stop “once the guns fall silent”.
After the conference in Guwahati, Shankar headed to Arunachal Pradesh on Friday for a three-day tour of the state, where the Chief Minister Pema Khandu was reportedly waiting at the helipad to welcome him (in Guwahati, he was driven from the airport by Guwahati High Court’s Chief Justice, Ajit Singh).
A day after the grand conference in Guwahati where Shankar made several appeals to the anti-talks faction of the ULFA to come on board for the peace process, its leader Paresh Barua, believed to be in a camp in Myanmar’s Hukwang Valley, issued a stinging rebuke. In a press statement mailed to journalists, Baruah asked Shankar “not to ask us to lay down our arms in hope of your empty promises”. He added, “I suggest you stick to your pretentious religion and let us continue our journey to freedom.”