8 Jan 2016

Dismissal of the Scheme Suit in the Supreme Court – by Bireshwar Choudury

The Scheme Suit filed against the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust has been dismissed on technical grounds by the Supreme Court of India on 6 January, 2016. Unlike what the supporters of Peter Heehs and the cronies of the Ashram Trust are projecting on the Net, the Supreme Court has not exonerated the author of the Lives of Sri Aurobindo. The Scheme Suit has been dismissed because the case against the Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs is still pending in the High Court of Orissa. As long as there is no final judgment on the objectionable book by the High Court of Orissa, despite the Gazette Notification of the Orissa Govt. banning the book in April 2009, the Ashram Trust cannot be expected to take “any precipitate action” against Peter Heehs. This, in a nutshell, is what the Supreme Court has said.

In other words, the Ashram Trust has taken advantage of the pending case in the High Court of Orissa to absolve itself of the guilt of not taking the appropriate action against Peter Heehs. It is as if the Ashram Trust has passed the buck to the Orissa High Court, saying that the latter was in a better position to judge the distortions in the book, while it pretended to have no intelligence of its own, because it did not want to take a quick and independent decision in its own internal matters! The Trust has also been very clever to take the bare minimum of administrative measures against Peter Heehs by dissociating itself from his book in a fax message dated 11th of November 2008, and by removing him from the Archives Dept. of the Ashram, so that it cannot be accused of gross dereliction of duty. Thus the half-hearted and meagre punishment that it finally meted out to Peter Heehs is what actually saved it from adverse judgment! I quote from the Supreme Court Order:

29. The sum and substance of the grievance of the respondents is really two-fold: firstly, the appellants [the Ashram Trust] failed to take any positive action to prohibit the availability of the objectionable book or dissociate themselves from the objectionable book; secondly, instead of taking some coercive action against Peter Heehs (such as removing him from the Ashram) the appellants assisted him in getting a visa for his continued stay in India by standing guarantee for him.

30. In our opinion, the second grievance would arise only if there is substance in the first grievance, namely, that the appellants failed to take proactive measures to have the objectionable book proscribed and that they failed to dissociate themselves from the contents of the book. This really begs the question whether the objectionable book ought at all to be proscribed or its sale prohibited. As we have seen above, the matter is very much alive before the Orissa High Court and it is for that Court to take a final call on the legality or otherwise of the action taken by the concerned authorities in the State in prohibiting the availability of the objectionable book. Until that decision is taken by the High Court, it would be premature to hold that the book is objectionable enough as not to be made available to readers.

I quote one more important passage of the Supreme Court Order:

34. The High Court [of Madras] has effectively faulted the appellants [the Ashram Trust] for not making the first strike to secure a ban on the objectionable book. This is really a question of the degree of reaction to the objectionable book on which we would not like to comment. The appellants could have expressed their displeasure over the contents of the objectionable book, or dissociated themselves from the objectionable book or even taken proactive steps to have the objectionable book banned or proscribed. That the appellants chose only to express their displeasure may be construed as a mild reaction (as compared to outright condemnation of the objectionable book), particularly since the appellants had nothing to do with its publication. But the question is whether the mild reaction is perverse or could in any way be held to be a breach of trust or an absence of effective administration of the Trust warranting the removal of the trustees. We do not think so.

The decision of the Supreme Court has been technically correct, and the Ashram Trust has managed to free itself legally by a combination of clever court strategy, covert support to Peter Heehs and a reluctant dissociation from his book within the Ashram community. But the blot of shame on the Ashram Trust for not coming out forthwith and publicly condemning the book, such as the Sri Aurobindo Society has rightly done, will perhaps remain forever in the collective conscience of the disciples and followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee of the Ashram, who is at the centre of the controversy, will certainly go down in history as the man who betrayed Sri Aurobindo and the Mother after staying for 70 years in their Ashram. From a larger national perspective, he will be remembered as a classic example of the weak and servile Indian prostrating himself in front of impudent foreigners who want to become famous overnight by vilifying the great spiritual Masters of India.

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