Guest post by BOBBY KUNHU
On 17th December there was a dramatic sequence where, the youngest of a family of aged parents and five sisters who were inmates of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry attempted suicide by jumping off a water tank. The police rescued the woman, booked her and her sisters for attempt to suicide and released them on bail. This was following a Supreme Court order evicting them from the ashram at the end of a decade long struggle against the ashram. Their demand was simple that the management of the Ashram be taken over by the State to contain the corruption within. On the morning of 18th December, the family of seven decided to walk into the sea. Three died, four were rescued. Amongst the four who were rescued, one was allegedly raped by two men in her state of unconsciousness.
The South Asian spiritual landscape perhaps is the most diverse – ranging all hues and shades of spirituality cutting across religions and castes and has attracted followers internationally including celebrities like the Beatles, Isaac Tigrett (the founder of Hard Rock Café) and many others. Without exception, all of these spiritual groups ask for “total” surrender, though the terms of this surrender would differ from group to group. And many have willingly surrendered! For a non-believer it might be difficult to understand this leap of faith. But, for the believer this becomes the single most important event in her/his life. Even more important than birth marriage, love or death! And, when the terms of surrender is breached – though all hell breaks loose, people cling on to their faith. Despite “Sexy Sadie”, Paul McCartney held that Transcendental Meditation was a gift The Beatles had received from the Maharishi at a time when they were looking for something to stabilise them. In the BBC documentary The Secret Swami Tigrett stated that he believed that there was truth to the rumors of Sai Baba’s actions of pedophilia and sexual abuse towards some of his young male followers, but also such rumours would not change his belief in the Baba.
Something similar was brewing in the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Here a bit of contextualization is necessary. The Ashram was founded by Mirra Alfassa – known as the Mother to devotees based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. From a trust founded with borrowed money, the Ashram has grown to become the largest property owner in Pondicherry. To become an inmate, one has to go through a probation period, following which a contract of complete surrender is entered into with the Ashram. The Ashram allocates the inmate work in one of its departments based on his or her skill sets and qualification and in return provides for food, shelter, medical care, clothing and so on – but strictly no monetary benefits. This contract (called prosperity list) till recently also had clauses that prevented inmates from approaching the police or media. However, a caveat needs to be added here – the contract does not prevent an inmate from leaving the Ashram – and all inmates believe in the surrender!
Without any effective internal grievance redressal mechanism – this means absolute power. Over a period of time there have been allegations from Ashram inmates ranging from sexual abuse, pedophilia, physical abuse, medical negligence etc. When some of the inmates protested, their prosperity was withdrawn – meaning that their food and shelter too was withdrawn. Some inmates left the Ashram. A few others, rather than leave the Ashram and retract from their leap of faith and surrender, decided to go to court to get their food and shelter restored. After, a long protracted legal battle one of the cases came before the Supreme Court of India. The apex court turned down the prayer in the case. That is a different story requiring different legal analysis that I would not want to go into here.
In the meantime some inmates got together and formed an association to protest what they saw as gross human rights abuses. When their complaints fell on deaf ears, they organized two dharnas in January and February 2012 – and the inmates who participated in the Dharna were show-caused asking why their prosperity list should not be revoked – against which these inmates have gone to court. With some of the organizers of the Dharna – they have been removed from their allotted jobs and few privileges have been taken away. Since then, the inmate association has been trying to draw attention to their plight in whatever form possible. Given the Ashram’s insular nature these efforts seem to have met with little success – leaving the protesting inmates cynical about the larger society. Now they seem to believe that the only recourse for them is a state takeover of the Ashram management. The logic for this demand seems to be hinged on two simple requirements – transparency and effective grievance redressal mechanisms. They point towards the government takeover of Auroville – another institution founded by the Mother – through the Auroville Foundation Act of 1988 “for the better management” as a precedent.
A small diversionary note is required here – though the Ashram is the centerpiece of Pondicherry’s economy – beyond employment; there is hardly any interaction between the local Pondicherry citizenry and the Ashram. In fact, the local populace views the Ashram with deep suspicion. On the other hand given the vast resources owned by the Ashram, there seem to be a background political struggle to gain access and control of these resources.
Unfortunately, avoidable death of 3 women allegedly abused by the Ashram management (according to their suicide note) and four others in critical condition in the Government Hospital in Pondicherry – all of them from the same family – had to happen before the issue has come to centre stage. The Tamil media atleast is abuzz with the news and all political parties in Pondicherry including the ruling party are going on a Bandh on the 20th December demanding exactly what the Prasad family (Those who attempted and committed suicide ) have been demanding for over a decade – the takeover of the Ashram by the State from the present management. Too little, too late – 3 lives are already lost.
The ways of faith are intimate. Sister Jesme, a catholic nun who left the church over alleged abuses claims to have carried Christ with her, while the poet Kamala Suraiyya said that her Krishna continued in her heart even as she converted to Islam. The protesting inmates seem to want to claim spiritual ownership of Aurobindo Ghosh and the Mother. The protesting inmates do not want to leave the Ashram. The night before her first suicide attempt, I had a more than an hour long conversation with the youngest of the Prasad sisters, Hemalata – there was no dissuading her – her faith was her anchor. Their surrender to Aurobindo Ghosh, the Mother and the Ashram is complete and intimate and they want to retain that intimacy with dignity in an abuse free atmosphere.
Post Script: I just got the news that the Ashram management with the connivance of some Doctors are trying to threaten the surviving family members to leave Pondicherry on the excuse that they need psychiatric help from NIMHANS Bangalore, especially as one of the sisters was gangraped. Though they hardly have any support on the ground, the survivors are adamant that it is their right to live in Pondicherry and refuse to move out.
Further Update: The latest news, as of 6 January, is that the gang-raped sister was literally in illegal confinement in the hospital on the pretext of her “health” in the ICU – and she was not allowed to meet any of her family members (apart from kind policewomen who smuggled one of the surviving sisters when she went to the loo) the brave woman went on a hunger strike to get discharged from the hospital