Deccan Chronicle

Inside story of Govt. takeover of Auroville, unedifying to Aurobindo

Deccan Chronicle| M R Venkatesh

Published on: March 10, 2019 | Updated on: March 10, 2019

Taking forward the Auroville project was also smooth until the Mother passed away, on November 17, 1973.

 AUROVILLE: A Dream Hijacked, by Nirmalya Mukherjee, Published by Truth & Courage, Kolkata, February 2019 (Price Rs 290/-).

AUROVILLE: A Dream Hijacked, by Nirmalya Mukherjee, Published by Truth & Courage, Kolkata, February 2019 (Price Rs 290/-).

CHENNAI: Can the President of India's powers to sign an Ordinance, cleared by the Union Cabinet, be restrained by a court injunction?

This Constitutionally bizarre predicament was faced by the former President N Sanjeeva Reddy, in early November 1980 after then Law Minister Shiv Shankar in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet had cleared the ordinance on Central government's takeover of Auroville. This famous township, a unique international settlement near Pondicherry, was conceived to give life to the great philosopher and freedom fighter Sri Aurobindo's vision of a "spiritual, human unity, above all creeds, politics and all nationalities." It was a grand project of harmonious, universal living, to manifest a higher consciousness in Man, commended even by UNESCO.  

Kireet Joshi, distinguished scholar-philosopher and a former IAS officer who had been living in Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry for long years, later an adviser in the Union Education Ministry (now HRD Ministry) and a close confidant of the late Mrs Indira Gandhi, was then running from pillar to post to get the takeover Ordinance signed by the President prior to its proclamation.

As the story goes, when the President was about to sign the Ordinance, Sanjeeva Reddy at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan received a phone call from the Law Secretary asking him "not to sign it", as an injunction had been sent by a Judge of the Calcutta High Court "to forbid the President to sign any Ordinance that would come regarding Auroville or the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS)."

Having got wind of the Ordinance-to-come, SAS, the prime mover and inspirational fount of Auroville, a dream project of the Mother, the French spiritual aspirant who had joined Sri Aurobindo decades earlier, had moved the Calcutta High Court and obtained an injunction against the Centre's move.

Sanjeeva Reddy was furious retorting, "Who dare give orders to the President? It's a crazy move." The Law Secretary agreed, but added there was an order from the High Court! Kireet Joshi then rushed to meet Mrs. Gandhi, who according to this account, asked him to "Go straightaway to Calcutta and have the injunction removed." Kireet Joshi had to act very fast as it was already a weekend amid the long 'Pooja' holidays in Bengal.

Thanks to Kireet Joshi's good networking, he managed to get the Advocate General Mr. Acharya to take up the Centre's case and after an urgent hearing at the Judge's house in Calcutta, the Judge lifted the injunction. With the copy of the order Kireet Joshi flew back to Delhi, and showed it to the Law Secretary.

However, by then Sanjeeva Reddy, already not in the best of terms with Mrs. Gandhi, who had made a historic comeback in the 1980 Lok Sabha polls with a huge majority after the Janata party's 'kichidi' government fell, seemed even more reluctant to sign the ordinance and reportedly wanted the PM to speak to him personally for him to sign the Auroville takeover Ordinance.

This was conveyed to Kireet Joshi, as the President's secretary also happened to be Joshi's friend. Kireet then went to the PM's house and urged Mr RK Dhawan, her personal secretary, "to please locate the Prime Minister". It was then already November 8 and Mrs. Gandhi was somewhere in Kerala. Dhawan could contact the PM only on November 9 and the matter conveyed. "She was so kind, she called the President from Kerala. Then the President signed." And on November 10, 'The Auroville (Emergency Provisions) Ordinance, 1980' came into effect.  

The Ordinance justified the Central government's takeover on the ground that a Committee headed by earlier Lt Governor of Pondicherry, BT Kulkarni, had found "serious irregularities in the management of SAS". That the charges against the SAS and even a CBI case against its key office-bearers were later found to be unproved and rejected by a Pondicherry court is another story.

But the high drama of intrigue and politics, involving top bureaucrats and those holding high offices, was just one part of what the author of this book, Dr Nirmalya Mukherjee, terms a "larger conspiracy" to permanently delink 'Auroville' from the SAS, amid few people in big league, having a personal axe to grind in this takeover.

The story actually begins even earlier, ever since the idea of 'Auroville' was first mooted by the Mother during the SAS' first world conference at Pondicherry in August 1964. The objective was to give a concrete shape to Sri Aurobindo's vision (the great philosopher-sage had passed away in 1950 after long years of self-imposed exile and inner spiritual sadhana, articulated in his 'Integral Yoga'), of a higher spiritual metaphysic, brilliantly knitting Eastern and Western philosophies.

Taking forward the Auroville project was also smooth until the Mother passed away, on November 17, 1973. In this astonishingly candid, in parts sensational book, the author points out how the internal rift began after her demise, with one dramatic episode after another unfolding.

Undoubtedly, the SAS, Sri Aurobindo's vision and the Mother's perseverance to take it forward was at the core of the 'Auroville' experiment and still remains so. But new ugly variables burst forth, as the foreigners, largely French, resented any "interference" by the SAS managers led by unimpeachable devotees of Sri Aurobindo, like K D Poddar, whom the Mother had given the name 'Navajata'.

Nirmalya Mukherjee has meticulously traced the history to show how the 'foreigners' in Auroville wanted "independence" from the Sri Aurobindo Society, a sub-text of Europeans versus Indians running, after the Mother, a wonderfully humane, uniting factor, had left her earthly abode. And matters came to a head when the residents of Auroville registered a society of their own in Cuddalore (Auroville is technically in Tamil Nadu), one fine day, proclaimed their "independence" under the banyan tree and formed a Trust to raise money for their project. Naturally, the SAS hit back and then begins a series of court battles with the SAS first obtaining a permanent injunction against the Auroville society.

However, how this internal turf-war over control of the Auroville land/assets, with sporadic shades of violence, was allegedly turned into power-game by "some influential persons" including Kireet Joshi; the row spanning successive Prime Ministers and Education ministers, a former U.P. Governor and even a Supreme Court judge, to enable Central takeover of 'Auroville', forms the rest of the story.

In the debates on this issue in both houses of Parliament, significantly, it was the BJP which stoutly opposed the Centre's Bill to takeover 'Auroville'.
The subsequent happenings in the Apex court, which eventually upheld the Centre's Law, has also been extensively dealt with by Mukherjee, backed by documents.

The book is an eye-opener, uncovering the messy angle to the old Auroville management controversy - some MPs' in Parliament openly derided the "permissive" lifestyle of the "foreigners" being at the root of the problem-. The author substantially quotes from the account of a rebel French Aurovilleian Alain

Bernard. Nirmalaya Mukherjee cites other documents and his research also to back his "conspiracy" thesis, and hopes that the SAS' temporal authority, prestige and legitimate say in running 'Auroville' would soon be vindicated.

While the image-beating the SAS took at the height of the controversy, amid police, CBI raids and political ding-dong was sad, settlers in Auroville also need to do some self-introspection.

As they enjoy the fruits of the experiment, can they totally reject the tree and its roots - the SAS and Mother's vision- that nourished them?
In the same breath, for the author to revisit the Auroville row in a foreigner versus Swadeshi mould, more so in days of strident nationalism, may not be the best tribute to the great soul Sri Aurobindo himself.

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