COIMBATORE, Tamil Nadu — For the people of Coimbatore city, Poondi village was once a quiet, scenic base camp enroute to the annual trek to the ancient Arulmigu Velliangiri Andavar Temple high up in the Western Ghats. On Shivratri, the Tamil Nadu forest department would issue special passes for a limited number of pilgrims to scale the hills and pray to Andavar, an incarnation of the Hindu god Siva.
Vellingiri Hill and Poondi lie in a fragile corner of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR). The region is the source of the Noyyal river, which feeds into the Cauvery, and a crucial linkage between the Boluvampatti and Attappady elephant corridors of the Western Ghats.
But the region, local say, has been shattered by the Isha Foundation set up by Jagdeesh Vasudev, a controversial “godman” who calls himself Sadhguru.
Now aged 62, Vasudev, who has millions of followers around the world, attracted the ire of many when he released a video justifying the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019. The act, passed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), makes religion a basis for acquiring Indian citizenship and deliberately excludes Muslims. Its passage has sparked protests around the country, as millions of demonstrators contend the new citizenship law violates the secular nature of India’s constitution.
In his video, which was retweeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vasudev urged protestors to read the text of the CAA — even as he admitted that he hadn’t read it himself. Many questioned why a so-called godman had been tasked with justifying a blatantly discriminatory law that the government was struggling to defend.
The answers, residents and activists allege, can be found in places like Poondi — where Vasudev’s political connections have allowed him to get away with violating environmental laws. In February 2017, for instance, Modi visited...