THE spiritual curtain has lifted on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. With its net assets over Rs 500 crore, a flourishing business in leather goods, computers and hand-made paper, and a premium on its brand equity, the ashram's spiritual concerns seem to have been abandoned in favour of more materialist pursuits. And now the internal discontent is threatening to spill over outside as a section of its inmates have decided to settle matters in court.
The legal battle has been joined by political parties and human rights organisations who are demanding a full-fledged probe into the activities of the ashram. The PMK, the Samata Party, the Samajwadi Party, both factions of the DK, the BSP, the Dravida Peravai, the CPI(ML) and the People's Union of Civil Liberties have called for accountability and democratisation of the insular institution. While the political parties are interested in the ashram because of its growing economic clout (it employs about 3,000 people in its various divisions) and its huge real estate holdings (more than 70 per cent of the old French buildings near the beach), the discontent within has emerged over the spiritual deviation that has taken place in the ashram over the last two decades. Labour exploitation, tax evasion, sexual excesses, sexual violence, paedophilia and laundering of public funds are some of the crimes the ashram has been accused of perpetrating.
The first signs of discontent emerged when a section of the inmates founded the the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Inmates Association to protect the interests of the inmates. Reacting to the move, the ashram's board of trustees passed an order declaring that the association was outside the mandate of the ashram and expelled four of its members—Srikant Jivarajani, Bailochand Parida, Dilip Agarwal and Kamal Dora—on the charge that "their recent activities are not in confirmation with the ashram discipline". The order was signed by the managing trustee of the ashram, Harikant C. Patel.
In the original suit filed by the president of the association, Narayan Swain, who has been a resident of the ashram for 31 years, wanted the association to be declared a legal one. The Registrar of Companies refused to register the association under the Societies Registration Act unless it produced a no-objection certificate from the ashram for registering it. Subsequent to the filing of the suit, Swain and the expelled members separately challenged their expulsion by the board of trustees.
What was the impulse behind the formation of the association? Matters came to a head after the death of the first managing trustee of the ashram, Padbanabha Counnaumma. Subsequent to his death, members of the managing committee tried pushing their relatives into the all-powerful five-member board of trustees. For instance, the present managing trustee, Patel, managed to rope in his cousin Albert Patel on the board. Ved Prakash, yet another trustee of the ashram was inducted into the board solely because he was related to a former member of the board, Dyuman Bhai. The older members resented the entry of the newcomers and remained sceptical about their "spiritual commitment".
THINGS took a turn for the worse when a 37-year-old inmate of the ashram, Premalatha, disappeared. Before disappearing, she had filed a complaint with the Viliyanur police station on May 22, 1996, claiming that a couple of powerful inmates had molested her and were threatening to rape her. The police failed to take any action and Premalatha disappeared on May 25. Says PUCL President, T. Ravikumar: "We finally traced Prema-latha in her family home in Andhra Pradesh. It was rather shocking to know that those who talk about spirituality behaved so brutally. It is true that she was gang-raped by other inmates and we have decided to fight the case legally as well as politically." The ashram spokesperson, however, maintains that Premalatha was expelled because of "her bad character and loose morals". According to him, "the issue of rape was used only to throw mud at the institution"
That expulsion was followed by yet another, this time of Kunthala Raut, for behaving in an "unashramic manner bringing disrepute to womanhood". Before her expulsion, Kunthala was alleged to have been locked up in a room for a long time. But immediately after she was expelled, she went to the police and made public the treatment she received at the Trust. Later, a compromise was arrived at between her and the ashram; the police complaint was withdrawn and she was reinstated as an inmate.
The final fall from grace came when a dozen senior members wrote a letter to Manoj Das Gupta, a trustee and the registrar of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, accusing the inmates of pae-dophilia. The letter, dated October 26, 1996, stated: "Our children are being sexually molested by Janardan and Wilfy Pinto.... An irreparable damage has been done to theinnocent children as their sexual instincts are awakened at an unnaturally early age and they are filled with guilt." When questioned, the ashram authorities refused to talk about this issue. But, according to some parents, the two culprits were issued strict warnings and put under constant vigil.
According to Nandhivarman, general secretary of the Dravida Peravai, the time has come for a thorough probe into the activities of the ashram. "In our country, spirituality is used as a cover for all sorts of antisocial activities. Be it Chandraswami or the Aurobindo Ashram. Sexual exploitation of women and children, exploitation of the work force by running various manufacturing units under the cottage industry norm and greedy encroachments on public properties worth more than Rs 50 crore are by no means a spiritual exercise," he says.
The expelled members attribute the decline in the ashram's moral standards to the lack of any central authority since the death of the Mother in 1973. The Trust was created by the Mother to protect the interests of the 1,200 inmates of the ashram who had become full-time sadhaks. Says Dilip Agarwal, the general secretary of the association: "The Trust is not a public one; it is a private one with none having the power to include new members or expel existing members. Article 7 of the Trust's article of association states this clearly."
The remedy, they suggest, would be to permit the association to exist as a pressure group within the ashram that can take necessary corrective measures. "Let the inmates choose the board of trustees. What we need is not just managerial skill but also a certain level of enlightenment to run an institution like our ashram. The present board members obviously lack that. Hence we demand the restructuring of the board," says Bailochan Parida, the governing council member of the association.
The trustees, however, are complacent in their belief that the furore is temporary and will fizzle out. But given the mood of our activist judiciary, their hopes may be ill-founded and a legal battle may produce more dirty linen to be washed in public.