Considering the present impasse in Sri Aurobindo Ashram in which the Trustees are locked in a grim battle with some of the inmates and beneficiaries, how much better it would have been to have an independent Lokpal within the organisation to adjudicate matters? Had there been a quasi-judicial body which enjoyed the confidence and support of the community, and if this body were independent from the influence of the Trustees with the right to rule over their decisions, how easily matters could have been settled internally! I would therefore suggest a Lokpal for the Ashram community in the future.
For such an innovation, the present system of authoritarian Trustees will have to go. The Trustees derive their power from the divine and secular centre that the Mother occupied when She was physically present. Disciples and followers unquestioningly accepted Her authority and had full faith in Her divine knowledge both in spiritual and worldly matters. That physical space having fallen vacant in November 1973, the first Trustees and heads of departments chosen by the Mother continued to hold sway over the community for a couple of decades by acting with sufficient maturity and tact. As they quietly exited the mortal scene and were replaced by those who were not directly chosen by the Mother, the moral credibility of the next batch of Trustees and heads of departments rapidly diminished and, within a decade or two, all that remained was their legal authority. In this respect, devotees from outside, who have settled in the Ashram from a long time, and the so-called home grown “children of the Mother” are both responsible for this administrative deterioration. As a matter of fact, if anybody has betrayed Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the present crisis, it is the generation that grew up under the Mother’s personal care – there are of course a few exceptions who unfortunately have not been able to assert themselves effectively. Hopefully, with a minimum of Government intervention in the present crisis, the community would at last wake up and agree upon a more rational system of self-governance than the shameful and irresponsible administration of the present Trustees. It is in the anticipation of such a happy event in the future that I think it is worth reflecting upon the formation of an independent Lokpal within the framework of the Ashram, which will exclusively address the complaints of the inmates and beneficiaries against the Trustees and all those who hold important positions in the Ashram.
Appointment of the Members of Lokpal
How will the members of the Lokpal be elected? If they are appointed by the Trustees, they will have to toe their line and will therefore not adjudicate in a fair manner when the Trustees themselves are involved or blamed in a dispute (this is simply human nature). This will result in the bogus internal enquiries which have been conducted umpteen number of times by the present Ashram Trustees and have been proved to be totally useless, because finally the power of the Managing Trustee overrides all the decisions of the members of these fake committees. If anybody has any faith left in these bogus enquiries, consult those who have had to submit themselves to such enquiries in the past!
Will the members of the Lokpal be then appointed by a general vote of all the inmates and beneficiaries? Why not if this were plausible? Only the community will be then preoccupied all through the year voting for different bodies needed for self-governance! This is certainly not practical even for small organisations such as the Ashram. I propose therefore that an intermediary body be elected, a Larger Body (the term has already been used by Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya), consisting of about thirty to forty members with reasonable educational and spiritual qualifications. This Larger Body in its turn will not only elect the Trustees for a period of five years, but also the members of the Election Commission, the Audit Office and the Lokpal, all of which will be independent bodies, functioning in their own right for a limited period of time.
Five Stages of Appeal for the Inmates or Beneficiaries
A complaint against the Trustees by an inmate or beneficiary will be thus first referred to the Lokpal, whose decisions will be respected and carried out if the complainant accepts its decision. Most problems should be resolved at this stage with a little tact and understanding of human nature.
If the complainant is not satisfied, then the matter can be referred to the Larger Body, which will then decide on the issue with sufficient deliberation.
If the matter is still unresolved (as we may expect many human problems to be), then the matter could be adjudicated by a group of three or five eminent local dignitaries, who will be chosen in advance as a third rung of appeal.
If the complainant is still insistent, then five eminent persons from Sri Aurobindo Centres outside Pondicherry (again chosen in advance) could sit on judgment on the contentious issue – this will be then a stage of a possible fourth appeal.
If the matter is still not solved satisfactorily, and if the matter is so serious that it affects the entire community as well as the larger body of beneficiaries outside Puducherry (as it did in the issue of Peter Heehs), then surely, the matter should be referred to all of them after a due process of registration. This should be the final and fifth stage of appeal beyond which the Civil Courts are always there to seek for justice.
Criminal Matters Should be Handed over to the Police
In criminal matters, neither the Trustees nor the Larger Body should defend any inmate and the matter should be simply handed over to the Police and the local administration. The case should not be suppressed as the present Trustees have often done since the last 15 years in order to protect their own henchmen or even to protect the name of the institution, for one day or the other, skeletons will tumble out from the cupboard as it has recently happened in the Collector’s enquiry. Things would have been so much better in the Ashram had the Trustees not stood in the way of justice, for the culprits would have been fittingly punished and other culprits in the making would have hesitated ten times before committing any crime. Right now, because these culprits know that the Ashram Trustees will not take any action against them, theft and misappropriation has become their second nature and even heinous crime such as sexual harassment and rape has become condonable. What is worse is that the Ashram Trustees have encouraged such criminal elements, worked hand in glove with them, and have punished the victims instead of the guilty!
These five appeals at different levels should be a sufficient guarantee for justice for the common inmate of the Ashram. To avoid trivialisation of issues, the permission of each body should be taken at the stage of admitting the complaint. A clear distinction should be made between day to day complaints such as allotment of accommodation, sanction of extra facilities or change of work, which only affects the individual, from important issues which affect the entire Ashram community or/and all the disciples and devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother staying outside the Ashram. For example, a decision to curtail expenses and economise on electricity and water in all the houses of the Ashram will affect only the members of the Ashram community whereas the Peter Heehs issue affects all the disciples, devotees, followers and admirers irrespective of where they stay. In such a case when it affects the very ideological basis of the Trust, a mechanism should be evolved by which all the beneficiaries can intervene and set things right. For the Ashram does not belong only to its inmates but to all the beneficiaries and followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Care should be taken however not to victimise inmates by not attending to their complaints with the excuse of triviality. A complaint can be correctly understood only in the proper context and with the full knowledge of the attending circumstances. For example, the allotment of transport to an octogenarian inmate is crucial while the same demand coming from a young and healthy inmate cannot be taken with the same gravity. Thus a person with a complaint which is apparently trivial, should have the right of appeal to at least the first three of the five levels of appeal mentioned above.
Informal discussions among the members of the community should be encouraged when a complaint is lodged so that matters can be settled spontaneously without resorting to formal procedures. Intelligent people can be appointed to argue and present the cases of the complainants not only in front of the Lokpal but also the other inmates so that everybody knows how the complaint is being dealt with. Most of the problems can be solved or even avoided if the complainant and the authorities know that they will have to discuss the problems in full public view. Not that there should be no scope for official secrecy, but that should not be used to cover favouritism and self-interest.
Trustees to Take Permission before Filing Cases
There should be some regulatory mechanism inhibiting the Trustees from filing cases against the inmates or beneficiaries in order to avoid victimisation or legal harassment. The present Trustees have mostly filed cases in a spirit of revenge against all those who have opposed them. The majority of the cases could have been easily settled out of court with a little tact and conciliation. In order to check such vindictive and unnecessary filing of cases, it should be mandatory for the Trustees to take the permission of the Larger Body before they file cases against individuals or institutions. In cases where the entire community is affected, the matter should be put to vote and the decision of the majority should prevail. It would have been so good to avoid cases altogether, but that is not possible in our present state of consciousness, so the courts should be the last resort of solving contentious issues when all internal methods have failed.
Election of the Larger Body
There is always a possibility that the Larger Body, which has been given the onerous responsibility to appoint the various bodies (Trust Board, Lokpal, Audit Office, Election Office), can capture power and start behaving as autocratically as the present Trustees have done. As this whole exercise of reorganisation is precisely to avert such a situation, the members of the Larger Body should also have a fixed term and must face a renewal of tenure through an electoral process involving all the inmates and beneficiaries of the Ashram. Thus the ultimate power will reside in the Larger Community than the Larger Body, thus ensuring that there is no misuse of power by the latter.
Finally, it is true that no system of governance can work properly without the goodwill of those who are in positions of power, but that cannot be made a reason for not improving upon the existing system of a highly authoritarian rule which has left a bitter taste in all those who had previously reposed their faith in the present Trustees of the Ashram. Neither the structure of the Lokpal suggested here should be taken as final, for there is always scope for differences of opinion as long as we agree on the basics. What we will have to learn though in the future, if we want to survive as a collectivity, is how to agree to differ and work together in spite of our differences. Suggestions are therefore most welcome and these can be published on the Net or circulated among the inmates and beneficiaries of the Ashram. It is anyway high time that we think a little ahead and prepare ourselves for a big change in self-governance and start taking greater responsibility in our own collective affairs. For when the change comes (it is bound to come), we should not get caught off guard with the excuse that all mental plans are prone to human error and distortion, for a plan and a system (even if temporary) is indispensable to run any organisation.
[The following article should be read in the context of A Basic Scheme for Sri Aurobindo Ashram – proposed by an Ashramite.]