Many people have expressed their strong reservations about a Government takeover of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. But there are good reasons to believe that a Government takeover would be far better than the present administration of the Ashram.
The Auroville Example
Let me first point out the living example of Auroville where things are certainly much better off with a Govt administrator than the present state of affairs at the Ashram from the point of view of transparency, accountability and democracy. It is true that it would have been better had there been no government intervention even in Auroville, but this is merely a speculation of not much use now. The speculation also presupposes ideal conditions and does not take into account the human factors that made the takeover inevitable. The then management of Auroville refused to listen to the demands of the Aurovillians and the latter had no other recourse left but to appeal to the Government. Whose fault was it? Will the Aurovillians now say that they should not have fought for their rights and that they should have submitted themselves silently to the rule of Sri Aurobindo Society?
A similar situation has developed in Sri Aurobindo Ashram with perhaps more complications than in the case of Auroville. The administrative degeneration of the Ashram Trust over the last 15 years was bound to invite an intervention of the Government, and if this happens, would it be the fault of the Ashramites and devotees who have protested against the Trustees? Certainly not! The Ashram Trustees will be held accountable for the Govt takeover and not the devotees and inmates who have gone against them. In fact, the Trustees have themselves declared that they would rather give away the Ashram to the Government rather than negotiate with those who are against them. When such is their attitude, there is no other alternative left but to ask for the intervention of the Govt and hope for the best. After all, a Govt officer, with all his defects, would not summarily throw out people from their jobs as the Trustees have recently done in the case of R.Y. Despande, Radhikaranjan Das, Niranjan Naik and Vishnu Lalit. Moral sense will also prevail in handling cases of sexual molestation such as that of Mamata Satpathy, who was shown the door because she was the unfortunate victim and did not stop beseeching the Trustees for justice. Or that of Shobha Rani, who committed suicide after leaving a note implicating eight members of the Ashram for sexual harassment and eve teasing. The very fact that the present Ashram lawyer Nirmal Swain figures in this list should be an eye opener on how the Ashram Trust functions. Finally, with regard to medical negligence leading to death, the recent case of Shanti Sinha will be taken with utmost gravity by any Govt administrator. These are only a few of the many examples that can be given to show the necessity of a third party, without any parti pris, to take care of the administration of the Ashram.
The Peter Heehs Controversy
Of late the Ashram Trustees have been desperately trying to divert public attention from their own mismanagement of the Ashram to the Peter Heehs controversy. It is true that all the Ashramites were angry at the way the Trust handled the controversy over the book and protected Peter Heehs. But this does not mean that Peter Heehs was the cause of the present crisis. The writing of such a denigrating book on Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram is rather the ultimate symptom than the cause of the present malady, which has deeper roots in the collective psyche of the Ashram. The obvious cause of the present situation is the lack of spiritual maturity in those who presently rule the Ashram. I say “rule” because the Trustees literally rule like kings with no checks and balances to control their whims and fancies, and they cannot be questioned at all by the community when something goes seriously wrong. In other words, absolute power coupled with a total lack of spiritual maturity has created the present mess! Absolute power in the hands of the Mother was acceptable to all because She could never misuse her power, but absolute power in the hands of Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee, will bring down the institution because of his arrogance and vengefulness. Thus the Peter Heehs affair became a controversy not only because of the derogatory content of the book, but more because of the way Manoj Das Gupta handled the issue – it is actually he who created the controversy. One statement by him to the Press condemning the book would have nipped the problem in the bud and the aggrieved disciples and devotees would have been satisfied. The fact that he consistently refused to do so shows that there was something far more wrong with him than with Peter Heehs.
The readers should be made aware that the Peter Heehs issue came up in August 2008. Since then there has been a steep decline in morals and a rising curve of corruption with the active or tacit support of the Trustees. The Mamata Satpathy molestation case happened in May 2010, the Shanti Sinha case of death due to medical negligence in September 2012, the eviction of Ambika, a popular physical education instructor, from the Ashram on a groundless allegation of molestation happened in 2009, and a shady property deal involving the exchange of an Ashram house was signed in 2011 by the son of Dr. Dilip Datta, Trustee in charge of medical services of the Ashram. All these events happened after the Peter Heehs controversy; so by no stretch of imagination can they be attributed to it.
Going a little farther back into the past, what about the Nikhil Virani case of sex with minor students of the Ashram School (which, by the way, is technically considered rape even if it is consensual); the complaint of paedophilia against two Ashramites signed by several teachers and inmates of the Ashram; the prostitution going on in some of the Ashram guest houses; the forged document by which the Ashram Trust bought the Raghavan House, which resulted in an arrest warrant on Manoj Das Gupta so that he had to apply for anticipatory bail; and the number of suicides that took place in the last decade? How are the above events connected with the Peter Heehs issue? These unfortunate events rather show a deeper malady, that of condoning and allowing every kind of crime in the name of spirituality. There is also a remarkably consistent pattern of behaviour evinced by the Trustees over the last 15 years, especially by Manoj Das Gupta the Managing Trustee – that of ruthlessly punishing the victim and protecting the culprit.
There are two knee-jerk reactions from the supporters of the Trustees to these allegations. The less brainy, who are generally more vocal, have simply denied them as if there was no basis at all for even an enquiry into them. The answer to these foot soldiers of the Trust is how do they explain away the FIRs that have been registered at various police stations, the umpteen number of cases that have been filed in the Court, the ugly reports in local Tamil newspapers, and the numerous complaints that have been written by long-standing inmates of the Ashram to various Govt agencies. If all these are false, then you might as well say that the Ashram Trust stands above the laws of the land, which is exactly what a group of ladies actually conveyed to a fact-finding commission that recently visited Puducherry! The team of human rights activists was shocked to hear from these ladies (who spoke in defence of the Trustees) that moral rules don’t apply in a spiritual society such as the Ashram community. Now this is a dangerously decontextualised truth! Sri Aurobindo did say that moral rules don’t apply to a spiritual man, but he did not recommend that to normal people who live in the ordinary consciousness and for whom moral rules are absolutely necessary. Will these ladies then justify crime such as molestation, rape and paedophilia as part of spirituality? Will they make the same statement when their own sisters or children close to them are manhandled and molested? It is precisely this hypocritical attitude that has landed the present Trustees into deep trouble. It is high time therefore that a level headed, ordinary, intelligent, moral man is given the reins of the Ashram administration before the Ashram community collapses into total disorder.
Unjustified Fear of a Govt Intervention
There is another false notion that is being deliberately floated about by the Trustees for their own survival. It is the fear that a Govt intervention will deprive the Ashramites of their daily necessities, which is ridiculous! As a matter of fact, the daily necessities of life will be more assured to the Ashramites under the Govt than in the present regime of the Trustees. Now the Ashramites dare not say a word against the Trustees because of the innate fear of being deprived of their basic facilities. Such a situation can never arise in a Govt controlled institution because the administrators will follow rules and procedures unlike the Trustees who simply depend on their likes and dislikes. The administrators also keep changing to avoid any entrenching of selfish interests and one can always appeal to higher authorities during their term. In the present situation, the Trustees are all powerful and they cannot be questioned by virtue of an outdated Trust Deed which was basically meant to give full powers to the Mother and not to them. It is this dictatorial disposition of the Trustees that has to be changed to make way for a new order in the Ashram.
There is of course a strong lobby of Ashramites who would like the present autocratic structure to continue, but this is purely because of vested interests. In their case, as long as the present Trustees are there, they will be favoured by them and enjoy various material benefits such as good housing, positions of power, special privileges and allowances, and costly medical treatment. There is often a deal between the Trustees and some of the departmental heads of the Ashram by which the Trustees turn a blind eye to the corrupt practices of the latter provided they support them. This is the sorry state of affairs at Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
The last apprehension is with regard to what will happen to the Samadhi and the sacred writings and objects of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. But why should the change of guard affect the Samadhi and the spiritual force that is so palpable in the Ashram main building? I thought Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s force is independent of all administrative structures. Certainly, their spiritual force is not going to be diluted by demoting Manoj Das Gupta to the rank of an ordinary Ashramite from his high pedestal of power. On the contrary, it will do a lot of good, for then more inmates of the Ashram will be able to participate in the decision making process of the Ashram.
Finally, all said and done, even if the Ashram Trust gets fully exonerated and those who have raised their voices against it are completely silenced, a change of administrative structure is badly needed. Forty years have passed since the Mother left her physical body in November 1973. Nobody has filled or will ever be able to fill the spiritual vacuum caused by her physical absence. Times have also changed and the yogic motivation of the present generation of inmates of the Ashram is doubtful. Therefore a rethinking of the aims and values of the Ashram in the present context where hardly anyone is ready for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s Yoga is unavoidable, and has to be done one day or the other. The bull has to be taken by the horns and the Ashram community (with the help of other devotees, disciples, well-wishers along with local and central Govt officials) should sit in a spirit of secular and spiritual participation to create the framework of a new life on the lines of what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have envisaged for the future of humanity. If the change cannot be brought about from within, then it has to come from outside, or by a combination of both methods, one helping the other. But sooner or later the change has to come!