The list of foreign invitees to the Art of Living’s World Culture Festival is adding to the controversies swirling round the event – some have refused to participate, others have been linked to scandals and one is dead.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Turkish former secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, who is known for his pro-Pakistan stance on the Kashmir issue and has often criticised India, is named as a member of the reception committee for the festival.
Several foreign leaders invited to the three-day event, including Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah, have decided to give the event a miss.
Following the pullout of President Pranab Mukherjee and Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe – who decided to skip the event and return home on Thursday after arriving in New Delhi – the latest cancellations have come as another setback for the event.
As if the controversies over to the damage to the Yamuna floodplain and the use of soldiers to build pontoon bridges were not enough, some of the foreign invitees have scandals of their own.
Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch premier who quit as head of the UN refugee agency in 2005 following allegations of sexual harassment, is named as a vice-chair of the festival’s reception committee in the official programme. Hakubun Shimomura, who quit Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet last year after a controversy over the ballooning costs of a stadium being built for 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is a member of the same committee.
Though Shimomura quit his post, the programme still refers to him as Japan’s sports minister in the programme.
Stranger still is the inclusion of former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the reception committee – he died on February 16 at the age of 93.
Nepal’s first woman President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, former Pakistan prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and ministers from Mongolia and the United Arab Emirates are among those who will not attend the festival. Nepal will now be represented by deputy prime minister Kamal Thapa.
The cancellations are expected to cause embarrassment to the government, which had used Indian missions around the world to plug the event.
Several of the top leaders who have pulled out were expected to speak at a conference during the three-day festival organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation, which is facing criticism.
A number of countries, including Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, cited protocol concerns while calling off visits by their leaders. Officials of some countries indicated it would not be proper for presidents to attend the festival when their Indian counterpart had decided to pull out.
Most of the countries, barring Zimbabwe, did not issue any formal statements regarding the cancellations.
Mugabe’s spokesman said in a statement that the “cancellation follows communication from the organisers of the festival acknowledging substantial inadequacies in protocol and security arrangements”.
The external affairs ministry has sought to distance itself from the event, with spokesperson Vikas Swarup saying during a weekly news briefing on Thursday that it was the Art of Living foundation, and not the government, which had invited foreign leaders such as Mugabe.
He said Mugabe’s pullout could have been due to the fact that there was no other “presidential- level participation” in the event.
However, several Indian missions helped publicise the event over the past few days through their websites and Facebook pages. They had also asked the diaspora to participate in the festival.