Book Review: Auroville – A Dream Hijacked by Nirmalya Mukherjee

Book Review: Auroville – A Dream Hijacked by Nirmalya Mukherjee

[contextly_sidebar id=”CdgXpl8wij2C6WDY6CAm2RaOtZrKHN4D”]Few would dare to write this book, because until now from the time trouble broke out in Auroville after the passing away of the Mother (of Sri Aurobindo Ashram) in November 1973, we have been fed with hyperbolic stories about the “evil designs of the over ambitious Navajat Poddar” – the Chairman of Sri Aurobindo Society who founded Auroville under the Mother’s guidance, and from whom the dream of building Auroville was snatched away by fraud and manipulation by a few high officials of the Govt. in league with “a bunch of foreigners” who wanted to declare “a free society like the Vatican [is] to Italy”.  After reading this book, one is naturally filled with sympathy for Navajat Poddar, especially after going through at the end what senior disciples of the Ashram (Amal Kiran, Nirodbaran and Madhav Pandit) said about him. The book is mainly an exposé of the conspiracy behind the takeover of Auroville by the Govt. of India, which actually was not necessary at all, and thus indirectly a vindication of the stand taken by Navajat Poddar. All these years we were led to believe that the Govt. takeover was due to genuine reasons, for the Society’s financial irregularities or its attempt to convert Auroville into a religion (whatever that means). We know now that it was due to this particular “bunch of foreigners” and their Indian sepoys who did not want any discipline at all, because they wanted a life not only free from Yoga (which is understandable) but also free from basic morality and social order. Otherwise, why would the Mother say towards the end of her earthly life: “The greater part of the population of Auroville is a subhumanity instead of a superhumanity.”

Hooliganism in the Name of Building a New World

The key conspirators of this plot were Kireet Joshi, a senior advisor in the Ministry of Education at the Centre, C.P.N. Singh, a close aide of Indira Gandhi (she appointed him as Governor of Uttar Pradesh after dismissing the state government), and B.T. Kulkarni, the Pondicherry Lt. Governor. When differences rose between Navajat Poddar and Shyamsunder Jhunjhunwalla after the Mother’s passing away, things could have been easily sorted out had not this powerful group led by Kireet Joshi vitiated the atmosphere by helping the few rebels who held the future of Auroville at stake by declaring a French revolution. One wonders what these rebels were fighting for so wildly that they had to break into people’s houses and throw their belongings out or forcibly occupy them, or jeer and heckle at the neutral group of both foreigners and Indians who suffered a lot and finally left disappointed. But what is astonishing is that this plain hooliganism was carried out in the name of building “a new world” and freeing Auroville from “the old world” of religion and outdated social norms which the Society was accused of representing, when all that it did was trying to enforce some discipline on these new age buccaneers. What is even more surprising is that many of us believed and still believe this utter nonsense.

Auroville Belongs to Nobody, so it Belongs to Us

The sordid truth behind this criminal behaviour was that the rebels were actually instigated to create a law and order situation so that the Govt. could justify an intervention. To make matters worse, the Police was instructed to ignore their criminal actions which should have normally landed them behind bars. Governor Kulkarni also dissociated the Society from the visa-issuing process so that the rebels in Auroville could enjoy a free visa-less status for a brief period, with no questions asked about their nationality. One of them wrote enthusiastically that he envisaged Auroville in India as an independent state within a state like the Vatican in Italy. This was certainly not what Mother meant by “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular” and that it “belongs to humanity as a whole.” Even if she meant that, the very next condition she imposed on those who wanted to live in Auroville was: “But to live in Auroville one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.” Very few quote this sentence because it is inconvenient and puts them to embarrassment. Mother of course was speaking of an ideal city of the future where ideal people from all nations would live in harmony because they would serve the Divine and not their ego. The present state of humanity was hardly ready for such a utopian city. So how can one believe that these hot-headed rebels were usurping power to bring about a spiritual revolution in mankind, and that the unfortunate incidents of violence that occurred could be justified as unavoidable collateral damage!

The Shoddy Kulkarni Report

Because the takeover had to be further justified, the Pondicherry Governor B.T. Kulkarni instituted the Oza committee in January 1977 to scrutinise the accounts of Sri Aurobindo Society.  When the Oza committee submitted its audit report in May with the sole suggestion of further streamlining the accounts, Kulkarni submitted his damning report that he “found instances of serious irregularities in the management of the said Society, [and] misutilisation of its funds and their diversion to other purposes.” The Kulkarni report was a bogus and motivated report submitted with no solid evidence whatsoever, because it hardly adduced evidence from the Oza audit report on which it was supposed to base itself. In other words, Kulkarni merely used the Oza report as a formal procedure to file his own condemnation of the Society, so that the Govt. could now move for what would seem outwardly a legitimate takeover of Auroville. Shockingly, Kulkarni did not even give a chance to the Society to defend itself, which goes against the very first principle of natural justice. That the Kulkarni report was totally biased and unfounded was amply proved ten years later when the case filed by the C.B.I. against the Society was dismissed by an upright judge of Pondicherry. But by then the damage had been done and the Kulkarni report became the basis for the temporary takeover of Auroville through a bill passed by the Parliament in December 1980. Ironically, the shoddy Kulkarni report was not even tabled in the Parliament because it would have exposed the Government.

The Supreme Court Case

The scene then shifted to the Supreme Court because the Society challenged the bill and brought a stay order on its implementation. A lot of misunderstanding has been created in the minds of the followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother over the terms “religion” and “spirituality” and the difference between them. The fear of appearing to be religious has been so deeply implanted in them because of a few statements of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother against religion (made in a certain context) that most of them view the Auroville case as a struggle of a few brave new age rebels against the evil onset of another religion which would destroy Sri Aurobindo’s work. The plain truth of the matter was that the distinction between spirituality and religion had not yet been legally made, so the Society naturally took it as a ground for arguing against government intervention in Auroville. Even if the Court had concluded that Sri Aurobindo had started a new religion, it would have hardly made any difference to the administration of the Society in Auroville or to the lives of people staying there. In the light of recent court judgments on religious matters, it is clear that the Court has taken the stand of intervening in secular matters of religious / spiritual institutions such as human rights and financial mismanagement, but not in the religious / spiritual beliefs and practices themselves, which are beyond the purview of the judiciary. This stand was also taken in the Auroville case by the judges of the Supreme Court and the final adverse judgment was not made on the basis of religious or spiritual issues but on the basis of non-existent financial irregularities as stated in the bogus Kulkarni report.

The Last Enquiry Backfires

As soon as the Supreme Court dismissed the Society’s appeal against the Govt. in November 1982, Kireet Joshi initiated another corruption enquiry on the Society in December of the same year. A letter was written to the Communist Government of West Bengal where the Society was originally registered in 1960. The West Bengal Govt. under Jyoti Basu took up the matter seriously and appointed B.R. Gupta as the Enquiry Commissioner. Intending to conduct a fair and comprehensive enquiry, a notification was then issued by the Commissioner that he will enquire into the alleged financial irregularities of the Society as well as “the circumstances leading to the stagnation in the progress of the Auroville Project” and “the causes leading to the alienation of foreign residents of Auroville”.  He then visited Auroville to meet its residents, members of the Auroville Administration and office-bearers of the Society, unlike the Kulkarni Committee which met only the rebels and refused to meet the representatives of the Society. A large number of complaints were filed against the Society which the Commissioner, as per procedure, passed them to the Society for their responses. The Society furnished explanations for every allegation and even provided documents to show the conspiracy that had led to the existing situation. These explanations were again forwarded to the rebels and Govt. officials for their counters, but no answers were received! For once the rebels and officials developed cold feet and realised they would be exposed if the Commissioner investigated further. Letters were hastily written to him to limit the Enquiry to financial fraud and not to extend it to the administration of foreigners in Auroville. As neither the Commissioner nor the Communist Govt. of West Bengal could be politically influenced, the Central Govt. finally got a stay order on the Enquiry in Chennai High Court on February 28, 1986. The West Bengal Govt. did not even appear in the Court to challenge the order. The Govt. of India then ensured the permanent takeover of Auroville by passing the Auroville Foundation Act in the Parliament in September 1988.

Presentation of Evidence

The narration of events ends here – the book reads like a thriller to those whom the Auroville takeover was until now a puzzle. The presentation of evidence is irrefutable by the mere fact that it draws from first-hand accounts provided by those very rebels who hijacked Auroville with the help of top Govt. officials. What has been recounted by Alain Bernard, for example, with great “pride and bravado” has been taken as evidence and used against them. What was presented by them as a successful spiritual revolution, unravels itself now as a sordid conspiracy and a miserable failure to live together in universal harmony, the very opposite of what Mother wrote in the Charter of Auroville. The book draws from other sources too which cannot be easily contested: parliamentary debates, government documents, news media which closely followed the events, and finally Court cases. There is hardly any loose speculation by the author himself and the storyline is crystal clear. Of course, the author speaks through the evidence, but can we accuse him of xenophobia? Certainly not! I quote at length from his concluding note which is a mature and sober assessment of present day Auroville:

Final Words of the Author

“I also realised there was not one Auroville. There were several. There was the Auroville of sincere spiritual aspirants who had come here for their sadhana, for the practice of Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, for a collective effort towards human unity. Their work in various fields such as sustainable architecture, agriculture, afforestation, music, the arts, health and pre-natal education is path-breaking. A lot has been written about these efforts in various journals and books. But no individual or organisation is perfect. They all have their positives and negatives, their strengths and weaknesses, their lights and their shadows. And so, in the case of Auroville too, there is the other story of its takeover, which often brought out the worst of human nature in some, but also the best in some others. This is a story that is hardly known or talked about. This book is confined to that aspect, which is the Government’s takeover of Auroville, where a group of Aurovilians, some Government officials and political leaders played a major and, unfortunately, a very negative role. The purpose of the book is not to paint the whole of Auroville and all Aurovilians with the same brush and create an impression that all is dark and black in Auroville. Far from it. Auroville is the Mother’s dream. It is a beautiful place and there are many fine people living here. All this is well known. And if Auroville has to become what it is meant to be and realise its full potential, these things too need to be more widely known, even by Aurovilians themselves, most of whom are either ignorant of what actually happened, or have heard a very distorted version.”

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