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 the police, the Art of Living (AOL) 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, a part of spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s global AOL movement for stress management and peace, is spread over around a quarter-of-an-acre.
Three rooms including the centre’s office were completely gutted in the attack, according to Art of Living member Meena Gabeena.
The Bani Gala police said Shahnaz Minallah, an AOL trainer and the owner of the property, had not received any specific threats, extortion-related or otherwise.
But sources familiar with AOL’s work said the attack might have been instigated by a programme aired by a private news channel in February which portrayed the centre in a negative light.
The TV programme, according to sources, had made allegations about the centre’s funding sources, claiming it was funded by agencies in a neighbouring country. The subject of the TV programme was international NGOs working in Pakistan.
The AOL Foundation is a volunteer-based NGO headquartered in Bangalore, India. It operates yoga centres 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 had closed for the day 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 guards and tied them up.
The attackers then proceeded to set the centre — built as an open space for outdoor meditation with a few office rooms and an indoor meditation hall — ablaze with petrol they were already carrying with them, according to the police.
An AOL member, asking not to be named, said that the attackers missed the main building, probably because the lights were out, and only attacked the smaller building near the entrance.
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 from the scene when neighbours noticed the fire and tried to intervene.
No one was injured in the attack, according to the police.
A case has been registered on the complaint of one of the security guards, but no arrests had been made till the filing of this report.
The police said it might be difficult for them to track down the attackers since little is known about them, but added that the attackers took a cell phone from one of the guards which could be used to track them down.
The attackers are believed to have arrived at the centre on a car, which the police said they are also trying to locate.
According to sources, Shahnaz built the centre over a 10-year period as a labour of love. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar inaugurated it as an official Art of Living centre in 2012 during a visit to Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2014.