The students were confounded. 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.
“You need to maintain silence,” Dr Savita Harish, the instructor for this session, pleaded. “Yoga is nothing but peace.” The teachers joined in, helpless at the sight of the rogue bunch derailing the proceedings.
The celebrations for the International Yoga Day had already kicked off in the neighbouring India; nearly 2000 km away, Maldives was only just warming up. The last time the students of this school in Malé were made to go through such contortions was exactly a year ago.
Unlike the last time, the celebrations this year were tainted by right-wing extremists.
On June 18, Sheikh Ahmed 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 Dr Savita Harish. She, along with her husband, has been conducting free yoga classes at the Indian Cultural Centre in Malé since 2012. Keeping in mind the local sensibilities, Dr Savita thus omits words like ‘Om,’ considered a Hindu chant, in the sessions she conducts.
A native of Bangalore, Dr Savita has seen yoga getting increasingly popular 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 the country has had a record of using religion as a mobilizing force.
“It’s a conscious choice on part of the government to not stop them,” said Shahindha. “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. Until now, yoga was never a problem,” she added.
When reached for comment, Jamiyyathul Salaf wasn’t too forthcoming. Its Vice President Hassan Moosa Fikree replied to a text message saying, “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.”
Unfazed by the resistance, organizers 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 June 21, the day wound to a closing ceremony by a beach in Malé. 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 Dunya 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.
Dunya, too, played her part of diplomatic deference, and emphasised carrying forward the country’s “India-first foreign policy.”
Mohammed Khaliq, the director of Indian Cultural Centre, later explained what kept them going in the current climate. “India and Maldives are very similar,” he said. “We eat the same food, we sing the same songs… You have extremists everywhere. Let them say what they want to. But the show must go on.”