22 Aug 2014

Who is Gaining from Legal Battles? – Sridharan

The Well-Wishers of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Forum is active again. This Forum can be considered as the unofficial mouthpiece of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust with Matriprasad Satyamurthy (secretary of the Ashram Trust) and Richard Hartz (controversial editor of Sri Aurobindo’s publications) hiding behind pseudonyms and spewing hatred at what they call anti-Ashram elements. Let me remind you once more that we had made a clear distinction between the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust in our last response to this forum. Therefore the Ashramites who have filed this “new case” are not against the Ashram but the Ashram Trust, which runs the Ashram in the most irresponsible manner. Their demand is to revamp the present administration through a Government intervention without which no structural changes can be brought about in the governance of the Ashram. The changes will ensure transparency and accountability, the utter lack of which is the hallmark of the present setup. The introduction of some democracy into the highly autocratic functioning of the present Trustees would also be a welcome measure. All these demands are fundamental to any institution in modern times and, if the excuse for not conceding to them is that the Ashram is a spiritual institution and not a secular one, then show me these “highly spiritual disciples” among the present Trustees who can guide the Ashram to its spiritual destiny! It is the arrogant decisions and actions of the present Trustees and their henchmen that have invited a flurry of court cases from aggrieved beneficiaries from the last fifteen years, ever since Manoj Das Gupta (the present Managing Trustee) and Dr. Dilip Datta (head of the Ashram legal department) came to power in the late 1990s’. The number of cases that the Ashram Trust was involved in as on June 2008 was more than 160; by now it would have surely crossed the 200 mark. If this reflects the spiritual disposition of the Ashram Trustees, then we surely need to rewrite the dictionary!

Now that I have given a sufficient background of the way the Ashram Trust functions, let us explore some of the “petty, personal scores” that the aggrieved Ashram litigants want to settle with the Ashram Trust.

1. In the year 1997, four inmates of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Inmates’ Association were expelled from the Ashram for no other reason than forming an Association in order to protect the interests of the inmates. These inmates were summarily denied food, shelter and other basic necessities of life by the Ashram Trustees leaving them no other option but to seek for redressal in the Pondicherry Court, which fortunately restored their basic necessities and their status as Ashramites. (This is a good example of how the Trust functions. It takes harsh and inhuman decisions which force people to go to the Court and then it plays the victim as if the aggrieved parties are the first offenders!)

2. The multiple cases filed with regard to the editing of Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri could have been easily avoided by the Ashram Trustees with a little wider consultation instead of exclusively depending on Richard Hartz & Peter Heehs, who think they know better English than Sri Aurobindo himself. It is the sheer arrogance of these two American editors and the Managing Trustee’s unflinching support for them for whatever reasons that have invited the court cases by anguished disciples. Ironically, the two main critics of the new edition of Savitri, R.Y. Deshpande and Jugal Kishor Mukherjee (both eminent scholars) agreed with the American editors on the basic editorial principles that were followed, though they hotly contested the application of these principles in particular cases. Jugal Kishore Mukherji once wrote to Amal Kiran saying that if the editors of the new edition of Savitri had corrected a number of transcription errors / slips / typos / misreadings, etc, they had equally introduced the same number of unnecessary editorial interventions! When this was the case and the cause of irreconcilable differences, the whole exercise could have been made more public and referred to a third party before finalising on the corrections. (After all, Peter Heehs and Richard Hartz are not the only experts in the English language having sufficient familiarity with Sri Aurobindo’s poetry in this wide, wide world!) This would have satisfied the litigants and avoided all the bitter confrontation in the courts where the lawyer of the Ashram Trust was once forced to say that the Mother did not know sufficient English! (This is another example of how the Ashram Trust forces its own beneficiaries to go to the Court and then plays the victim of legal harassment!)

3. The way the Ashram Trust mishandled the Peter Heehs controversy can never be overstressed. One single public condemnation of the book by the Ashram Trust was all that was demanded in the beginning. But the Managing Trustee in his well-known style of doublespeak dug in his heels and obstinately defended Peter Heehs while he himself condemned the book! This hypocritical attitude infuriated the disciples and devotees and made them eventually file a Scheme Suit against the Ashram Trust, which is now pending in the Supreme Court. To make matters worse, the Managing Trustee went on to suppress ruthlessly all opposition by throwing out long standing inmates from their workplace, such as R.Y. Deshpande, Niranjan Naik, Radhikaranjan Das, Vishnu Lalit and Sraddhalu Ranade. He issued show cause notices to eight inmates with the implied threat of eviction from the Ashram so that they had to procure a stay order from the Court in order to protect themselves – these include Kittu Reddy who came to the Ashram in 1941, i.e. before the present Managing Trustee came; Annapurna Das, Abhinna Chandra Patra and Varun Pabrai. Togo Mukherjee (who is no more) was even deprived of Ashram food and a number of others such as Dilip Agarwal and Bailochan Parida were given discriminatory medical treatment.

4. Even the famous “scuffle” during the dharna of February 27, 2012 was due to the Trustees’ outright refusal of a petition from devotees who had come for the Darshan from outside Pondicherry. The Trustees have been portrayed as innocent saintly victims in this incident, but it was Dr. Dilip Datta (Trustee) who aggravated the situation by arrogantly refusing to take the petition and even crumpling and throwing it in the drain! Even otherwise the result of this most disdainful gesture was only verbal protest from the offended devotees without any physical contact whatsoever. That very evening saw the Trustees dressed up in white like martyrs of a war-torn city and present themselves at the Grand Bazaar Police Station in order to file an F.I.R. on how Dr. Dilip Datta was wilfully prevented access to his office!

So much for the “psychic disposition” of the present Trustees of the Ashram! The Ashram Trust can actually be run far better by ordinary managers of a small scale business enterprise without any pretence of spirituality though with plenty of common sense. And when the above stated causes of litigation against the Ashram Trust are described as “petty, personal scores” by the Well-wishers Forum, then I am simply dumbfounded!

Finally, why is there so much resentment against a few devotees spending their own money in court cases against the Ashram Trust when the Trust itself has no qualms of conscience in spending the hard earned offerings of millions of devotees in legal expenses against its own beneficiaries? If there is Harish Salve on one side, the Trust has Gopal Subramaniam, Ashok Desai & others, who are no less costly for their legal services. Moreover, the devotees who are spending their own money have nothing to gain monetarily or in terms of position and power, for they are only asking for the intervention of the Government and not a replacement of the present Trustees by themselves. A thorough revamp of the Ashram administration is going to be therefore beneficial to all the Ashramites and devotees and not to only those who are now standing up to the Trust. The false information that these devotees are expecting some big returns in these thankless legal battles is deliberately being spread to cover the dubious practices of the Ashram Trustees, not to mention the lavish lifestyle that secretaries like Matriprasad Satyamurthy enjoy in fulfilling these “onerous duties”. The real question that should be asked is, “Are the Ashram Trustees interested in preserving the legacy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother or are they simply interested in perpetuating their hold on the Ashram administration?”

I would make one last suggestion. Why don’t the Ashram Trustees hand over the administration to five of their own supporters for a change in order to show that they have no personal stake in it?

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