2 Aug 2013

Scabs Beneath The Serenity – Imran Khan (Telhelka)

The world-renowned Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry has come under a cloud with inmates making serious allegations against the trustees. Imran Khan reports:

All is not well with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a well-known institution for the spiritually inclined, with the state government considering a proposal to take over its administration from the hands of the trustees. With several allegations of inmates facing sexual and other forms of harassment coming to light, the ashram’s image of piety is under threat.

Last year, more than 50 inmates submitted written complaints to the district collector as part of a probe into what goes on inside the ashram. The Puducherry government had ordered the probe after the Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare Krishna Tirath wrote to Chief Minister N Rangaswamy, following several complaints from the inmates. The probe, though, could not be carried forward as the ashram management moved the court questioning the jurisdiction of the Puducherry administration over matters concerning the ashram. Currently, the case is pending with the Madras High Court.

TEHELKA is in possession of the testimonies submitted by the 50-odd inmates to District Collector SB Deepak Kumar in September last year. The testimonies lay bare a long list of sexual harassment and cruel treatment of the ashram’s residents. “We had been receiving several complaints even before the inquiry started,” says Kumar. “Most of it related to financial irregularities, which is not our concern, and so we did not pay attention. However, serious complaints of sexual harassment and physical torture surfaced after we started the probe.”

Take the case of Jayashree Prasad, 52, an inmate since 1983, who says she was beaten up by a close associate of a trustee in July 1996. While she was working in the dining hall, Nonigopal, who she calls a crony of the then trustee Albert Patel, tried to sexually assault her. She claims she was beaten up when she resisted. Her ordeal was repeated in January 2001 when she resisted the sexual advances made by Krishna Chander, considered close to trustee Ved Prakash Johar. This time she was attacked with metal rods. Her appeal to the trustees for help and protection, she says, went unheeded.

Four of her sisters, too, are ashram inmates. When the youngest of them, Hemlatha, 37, tried to raise the issue with the trustees, not only was she reprimanded but all five sisters were barred from the dining hall and issued a show cause notice threatening eviction from the ashram. Even the police told her that according to the ashram rules, inmates are not allowed to approach them and file cases.

“Until 2009, Rule No. 11 of the ashram forbade residents from reporting internal matters to the media or seeking legal recourse except with the consent of the trustees,” says Raman Reddy, in-charge of the ashram’s archives.

After the rule was revoked, the Prasad sisters managed to file a complaint with the police in 2010. Following this, they allege, they were again asked to move out of the ashram. The case went to the high court, which ruled that the sisters should find accommodation outside the ashram, at Jenny Hostel (an ashram-run establishment outside the ashram premises), until the matter was settled. But as the warden of Jenny Hostel refused to accommodate them, they continued to stay in the ashram.

When the Prasad sisters tried to enter the dining hall, the trustees called the police to stop them. Then, the sisters moved the district court for restoration of their right to food and shelter in the ashram premises. The court ruled in their favour, but the ashram management appealed the verdict in the high court, which said the district court cannot review its order. Following this, the sisters moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court. On 11 July this year, the Supreme Court ordered status quo to be maintained for three weeks, allowing them to stay in the ashram hostel and have food at the dining hall.

When asked why she and her sisters insist on staying in the ashram despite the harassment, Hemlatha says, “The ashram belongs to inmates like us and not to the trustees who have been misusing their authority.”

In another case, Radha Krishna Das’ wife Shobha Rani allegedly committed suicide in 2003 after facing sexual harassment several times. Das lodged an FIR accusing Nirmal Swain, then the ashram’s legal adviser, of abetment to suicide. The case was dismissed in 2012 by the Puducherry sessions court due to lack of evidence. Two of his daughters, who were ashram inmates, left the ashram after this.

In 2004, Kamal Dora, 60, reported the alleged suicides of residents Kavitha and Meenakshi to the police, and also testified in the Shoba Rani case. He was thrown out of the ashram the next year. Since then, Dora has found shelter in a nearby home for the aged.

SM Annapurna, a former inmate, claims she was thrown out of the ashram for repeatedly raising her voice against sexual harassment of women inmates.

Not just women residents, but also children in the schools run by the ashram have allegedly faced sexual harassment. Lipi Das, who served as a teacher in the ashram school for the past 30 years, says she had faced sexual harassment during her school days. Das says she has been raising this issue periodically in the teachers’ meetings, but “instead of addressing this issue, Managing Trustee Manoj Das Gupta reprimanded me”.

Sunil Sachraj, who grew up in an ashram school, claims he was sexually assaulted by a teacher a number of times. Yet the ashram retained the teacher.

The ashram’s media coordinator Matri Prasad claims that Sachraj never complained about his alleged abuse to the ashram authorities. Radhikaranjan Das, an inmate of the ashram since 1980 and a teacher of Sanskrit and Biology at the ashram school, wrote a blog post in 2008 questioning the “policies and negative stance of the trustees”. He was issued a show cause notice threatening eviction from the ashram and dismissed from his teaching job. Matri Prasad says the ashram had to take disciplinary action because the blog post used “derogatory language”.

The ashram is a tightly knit organisation with five trustees who have absolute control over the 1,400 residents. There are no internal elections for the post of trustees. When a trustee dies, the post is filled purely on the discretion of the remaining trustees. Most of the trustees are also in charge of various departments in the ashram.

An inmate has to submit everything belonging to him or her (including property and academic certificates) to the ashram. The ashram, in turn, takes care of their basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, and allots them work in various departments.

Many residents allege that if they raise their voice against the trustees, they are threatened with denial of basic necessities. Dr Gayatri Satapathy, who joined the ashram’s medical services as a general practitioner in September 1999, says that when she noticed serious embezzlement in the nursing home accounts, she was shunted out of the department by its head Dilip Kumar Dutta, who is also a trustee.

Most police and state government officials refused to comment on matters concerning the ashram. A senior bureaucrat told Tehelka, “These things keep happening. One should not give much air to it. Spirituality is what matters.” Both SSP (Crime) and SP (Law and Order) of Puducherry refused to comment.

Inmates say that all efforts to report abuses in the ashram in the mainstream media have come to naught. Those who have allegedly suffered at the hands of the trustees are demanding that the government should take over the administration of the ashram. They cite the example of Auroville, an “international township” that was earlier under the Aurobindo Ashram but is now managed by a government- appointed administrator. The ruling NR Congress has come out in support of this demand. CM Rangaswamy recently told the Puducherry Assembly that the government is mulling over appointing an administrator to oversee the management of the ashram.

Matri Prasad says that most of the allegations have been levelled by those who are “working against the ashram’s interests” or are not its inmates. “They are miffed because the trustees defended a controversial book written by an American historian living in Puducherry, Peter Heehs (The Lives of Sri Aurobindo),” he says. The book is alleged to hint at a romantic relationship between Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, Mira Alfassa, better known as “the Mother”. He claims that the Prasad sisters have been carrying out relentless propaganda against the ashram and were asked to leave the ashram premises as an internal disciplinary measure.

While most of the 50-odd residents who deposed before the district collector last year have been issued show cause notices threatening eviction from the ashram, their allegations will continue to haunt the institution for a long time.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 32, Dated 10 August 2013


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