Puducherry: The decades old Sri Aurobindo Ashram is once again in the spotlight for the wrong reasons with three women inmates committing suicide on Thursday.
Insiders and locals say the three sisters, who were a part of a family of seven that attempted suicide, could have been victims of warring groups staking claim to the ashram’s properties.
Already entangled in a number of cases ranging from sexual harassment to mismanagement of funds, the ashram faced fresh trouble when the women, all daughters of Gadar Prasad alleged sexual harassment by it trustees.
When they could not prove their charges, the family was asked to leave , but refused to go. Senior ashramites claim that Jayashree Prasad and her younger sisters were misguided by another ashramite, Sraddalu Ranade, who has been fighting the trust for years.
“Sraddalu and his associates are responsible for driving the sisters and their old parents to the point of suicide. They have been trying to damage the image of the ashram for several years,” claimed one senior ashramite. Adding to the ashram’s problems is its properties have been attacked by various fringe political outfits over the last few days.
Ashram’s peace shattered:
While the shocking suicide attempt on Thursday by seven members of a family from Bihar, in which three women died, has once again triggered a controversy surrounding the nine-decade-old Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its management, ashram insiders and local residents say that the family could have been mere victims of a long tussle between rival groups staking claim to properties worth crores of rupees managed by the trust that governs the ashram.
From allegations of sexual harassment to mismanagement of funds, the ashram is entangled in more than a dozen cases, often fighting against one of their own. Recalling the 14-year-long tussle between Gadadar Prasad’s five daughters, all inmates of Sri Aurobindo ashram, and the ashram management, a spokesperson of the ashram said it all began in 2000 when Hemalatha (now 40), the youngest of the siblings, allegedly had an affair with another inmate, Krishna Belliappa. When she became pregnant, the feud came out in the open.
“As it was against the ashram rules, we had to take punitive action against her, including expulsion. The allegations of sexual assault and harassment were all made by the five sisters only to counter that action,” said a senior inmate of the ashram.
Allegations of sexual harassment by trustees of the ashram management could not be proved and the family was forced to vacate the ashram. “The Madras high court directed the ashram to pay a certain amount of money to the women to continue with their lives. We readily agreed to this but the sisters would not leave the ashram. They instead appealed to the National Commission for Women, Human Rights Commission and eventually to the Supreme Court of India. They could not prove their allegations in any of the forums,” the ashram spokesperson said.
“If the police tried to evict them, it is because the highest court in the country directed them to do so,” he said. Well-wishers of the ashram who are in the know of things point out that the sisters were misguided by some groups within the ashram and were entangled in a larger conspiracy.
“If the claim that these sisters had no money and nowhere to go is true, how could they engage senior lawyers and fight the case for 14 years all the way to the Supreme Court?” asks Gautam Chikermane, a media professional who has been regularly visiting the ashram for more than a decade.
Senior ashramites claim that Jayashree Prasad and her younger sisters were being advised by another ashramite, Sraddalu Ranade, who has been fighting against the ashram trust for several years, demanding that it be dissolved, citing mismanagement.
“Sraddalu and his associates are responsible for driving the sisters and their aged parents to the point of suicide. They have been trying to damage the image of the ashram for the past several years. First, they went ballistic against the biography of Sri Aurobindo written by American Peter Heehs claiming that it portrayed the ashram and its guru in a bad light. When they could not succeed in this, they forced these sisters to make allegations of sexual harassment. They have also filed a case in the Supreme Court, seeking dissolution of the trust and the ashram. We have to wait and see what their next move will be,” the senior ashramite said.
When this newspaper tried to contact Sraddalu Ranade at his home just a few blocks away from the ashram premises, his mother Sadhana, also an inmate of the ashram since 1968, said he was away on a tour to lecture on the teachings of the guru. “My son came here when he was just six months old and is a product of the ashram and its school. He has been fighting against the present members of the trust as there has been gross mismanagement and several complaints of sexual harassment. There are at least 100 cases being fought against the ashram management in various courts across the country. If they have done nothing wrong, why are so many cases filed against them?” asks Sadhana.
“We have only been fighting to preserve the sanctity of this ashram and its glory.”
However, ashram officials claim that at present only 14 cases involving the ashram are being fought in various courts. The Sri Aurobindo ashram in Puducherry was started by the yogi in 1926 with around 30 members. The ashram has since grown in strength and presently has 1,200 members with most from the eastern states of Odisha and West Bengal. The ashram also runs a school with 400 students, runs and owns several guesthouses and other buildings in Puducherry and elsewhere in the country. Top politicians, bureaucrats and several other prominent persons are followers of Sri Aurobindo and well-wishers of the ashram.
Ashramites look down upon us, say localites:
For the past three days, the Aurobindo ashram and its various properties including the ashram school and a petrol pump owned by the ashram have been attacked by various fringe political outfits, including Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam and other organisations.
A bandh was even called for on Saturday necessitating the police to beef up security in and around the city. Locals here say that the attacks were possible and continue only because the local police as well as the general public do not have much regard for the ashram.
Karunakaran, a resident of Kalapet who runs a shop outside the government hospital, says that while thousands of ashramites and devotees of Aurobindo have been living in their city for several decades, they have never tried to mingle with the local community.
“For us, the ashram and its members are a mystery. We only hear about them when some scandal breaks out. Otherwise, nobody knows what is happening inside,” he says. To most native residents of Puducherry, the ashramites and other devotees who stay in their neighbourhood are more unfamiliar and unapproachable than the French who live in the city.
“It is the main reason behind the attacks. Despite living here for several decades, the ashramites have not tried to learn Tamil and communicate with us. We feel they look down upon us. This is the common feeling even among police and politicians as they seldom approach us. All their work gets done through their contacts in the Central government,” said Balamurugan, who runs a mobile candy shop near the ashram.
However, the ashramites refute the allegations. “We have never tried to stay away from them or have been hostile. People choose to live in the ashram as they want to let go of material pursuits. We practise silence here and communicate only when necessary. Sometimes, our silence is taken as rude behaviour,” says Matriprasad, a senior member of the ashram. “We are not evangelists and have no need to do any propaganda-related service,” he says.
Location: Tamil Nadu