The centre is a labour of love, says co-chair of AOL Foundation in Pakistan
On the edge of the placid Rawal Lake in Bani Gala, a suburb of the capital, a white pillar next to a flimsy bamboo gate has Art of Living scrawled in black. Till Saturday last, it was a functioning centre for Art of Living (AOL) courses conducted by Shahnaz Minallah, who is co-chair of the AOL Foundation in Pakistan, and her home.
Around 8 pm that night, her two security guards were attacked by a group of eight men, who tied them up and covered their heads with a cloth before proceeding to set the place on fire. Shahab, one of the guards, said he managed to free himself, only to find a gun pointed at his head. By then the huge fire in Ms. Minallah’s lounge and bedroom had attracted the neighbours who called the police. The attackers doused three guest rooms with petrol, staining the pristine white sheets.
The office near the gate is now a blackened shell and all the documents it stored have been charred. A mangled metal fan and a lock lie in the middle of the mess, along with a laminated photo of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of AOL. Outside, there is burnt paper and a low cot which have evidently been saved from the fire.
Ms. Minallah was away attending an advance training course at a resort in Nankana, as the Lahore branch of AOL had insisted on hosting it. “We were actually planning to hold it here and that’s why my guest rooms were ready in preparation for the event. We even had an Indian teacher over,” she said.
“The centre is a labour of love and I put all my money into it. I get no funding, other than the fees for training and we also do a lot of social service,” she said.
The centre was set up on six kanals of her own land in 2004 and was formally inaugurated by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 2012. She did the AOL course in 2001 and is an ardent practitioner.
“In 2004 it was sheer chance that Guruji visited us and I don’t know what drove me to follow him. We do courses mostly in three cities and, from 20-odd people, the number has swelled to over 80 per training session,” she said.
Art of Living is popular here and even without any marketing or publicity, people would come to the training sessions, she said. The small campus has a meditation hall and an amphitheatre, guest rooms and Ms. Minallah’s own house. “People have had the most extraordinary experiences here and I don’t know why suddenly after ten years it was targeted. These are people with dirty minds,” she said.
When Ms. Minallah bought the land, it was a swamp. She worked hard to make it what it is now — a serene meditation centre. “There was no access to the site. I built a bridge and planted every tree here. There are white roses in spring and birds… it’s very beautiful. Why would anyone want to wreck it?” she asked, as wind chimes tinkled softly near the lake.
Her house too has been ruined and all her documents and photos have been charred. “I lost all my belongings and my furniture as well,” she said.
She spoke of a TV programme some days ago where her co-chair Naeem was interviewed and grilled on funding for the centre. “They had said it would be about the Art of Living course, but instead asked pointed questions about our funding and didn’t wait to hear our answers,” she said. A lot of motives were imputed to the AOL centre.
The arson attack came after that. “I have nothing to hide. I am an open book — anyone can walk in and see what we are doing,” she said.
If it wasn’t for her neighbours who acted quickly, the entire set up would have been destroyed. The police have registered a case, but no arrest has been made yet.