There’s been a lot of talk about the army recently, particularly about how our soldiers must be respected because they’re guarding our borders and keeping us safe. I am in full agreement with this sentiment. Our ministers especially have stood up for the rights and honour of our soldiers. As they should.
Someone else who seems to have our ministers’ support is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose Art of Living Foundation is all set to throw a gala celebration event to mark its 35th anniversary. An event that will be attended by 3.5 million people over three days, we are told, including the honourable prime minister of India.
Keep in mind that this is a private event. Not a state or national celebration.
The event, called The World Culture Festival, has already been panned for the large-scale ecological destruction being undertaken in the process of preparing the venue. It is going to be held over 405 hectares of the riverbank, much of which has already been cleared of vegetation and been levelled. The event is going against the National Green Tribunal order of January 2015 putting a stop to all construction activity on the Yamuna’s banks and saying that any such activity would be deemed criminal. But in the world of Sri Sri, these are small matters and obviously no one says no to him.
Also, 650 portable toilets will be set up. No one knows how this waste will be disposed. There will be diesel generators, cars and sound pollution. Manoj Mishra of the Live Yamuna campaign has been quoted as saying that more than 1,000 acres of land have been cleared for the ‘party’ – there really is no other word for it.
Till now, my only and major bone of contention with this event was the imminent environmental damage that will take place and whose effects are likely to last for years. But it seems that the foundation’s Art Of Misusing is not just limited to the environment.
It has now been reported that instead of protecting our borders and people, 120 soldiers have been made to spend over a week building two temporary bridges that will float on the Yamuna river.
I can only conclude that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Ministry Of Defence (which must be in the know of what its soldiers are up to) saw these ads about joining the army.
Released by the Indian Army, starring actual army men, they’re ads that make army life sound wonderful, and the profession sound noble. As of course it is. The problem is that it seems that the government and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar took the ads at face value – especially the first one, which says, “it is India’s best construction company and biggest logistic operator”. Even if the Indian Army has soldiers trained to make bridges, they are not supposed to be daily labourers or labourers of any sort on hire. And they are definitely not supposed to be called in to do odd jobs for private events. Next thing we know, soldiers will be asked to be valets at the World Culture Festival. Because you know, the ad said they know how to drive cars.
Why is the army involved in labour activities such as building a bridge for this event? What justifies them being called in to do so?
The event, which will allow “spiritual and religious leaders, politicians, peacemakers and artists to spread the message of global peace and harmony in diversity”, seems to also spread the message of how to misuse the Indian army. According to an NDTV report, “army sources who asked not to be named confirmed to NDTV that 120 personnel were assigned to build the bridges, and that after expressing reservations about the task, senior officers made it clear that the organizers must accept liability for any accident that injures attendees”.
In fact, these soldiers (and by extension, the army) are being made complicit in the ecological nightmare that is this private event. The committee which has been set up to investigate the potential ecological damage that may be caused as a result, has said that the building of the two pontoons is in direct violation of their order. In fact, the “committee has noted that there is no way to find out whether the debris generated during the construction of the bridges has been dumped into the river”.
Is this what our soldiers are expected to do? One would think that the dismal conditions in which they have to protect our borders are bad enough. Now they have to lug construction material around to build bridges for a spiritual guru’s private celebrations? Forget any politician speaking up about the misuse of the army, the event is going to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One would think he would step in and put a stop to this utter misuse of our soldiers.
In India, for all our beating-our-chest adulation for our soldiers, we don’t think twice about asking them to carry out jobs that are not their responsibility. Whether it be pulling a child out of a borewell or being called in to maintain peace and order during riots, it’s all kosher.
Imagine you manage to qualify to enter a military academy, then you spend years training, finally you join the army. Then you’re told that your first call of duty is to build a bridge – not for an army sortie or in a disaster-struck part of the country, but for a yoga and meditation event. To be attended by the very Prime Minister who should be ensuring your job is respected. What could be more demoralising? We should just be pleased that they weren’t called in to make the stage for Baba Ramdev and Shilpa Shetty’s yoga celebration, or for Gautam Adani’s son’s wedding. Keeping with the spirit of the Art Of Living, don’t hold your breath though. It seems anything is possible.
What is worse is that other than for NDTV, nobody else seems to be bothered about this incident. No media has written about it since the news broke. Not one politician or minister tweeted about it or made a statement. These are the very same politicians and ministers who are leaving aside no opportunity to tell us how much we Indians should be indebted to the Indian Army. Could the silence be because if anyone has friends in high places, it is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar? Now that is the true Art of Living.