by Rod Hemsell
The G20 conference currently being hosted by the Government of India as the new president of this apex organization of world governments, is scheduled to be meeting in Puducherry and visiting Auroville in January. This would presumably be an important event on the calendar of UNESCO, which has repeatedly passed resolutions in support of Auroville. The underlying reason for this visit to Puducherry, as well as for UNESCO’s always consistent and significant support, would presumably be the philosophy of human unity and internationalism to which Sri Aurobindo devoted many of his published writings. His Ashram in Pondicherry, and the Auroville international township dedicated to his philosophy, located nearby, represent Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy in a living way. His political writings have also underpinned the developments of India’s polity since its early struggle for independence, and they continue to do so. The cabinet ministers during several decades of the Nehru and Gandhi administrations are known to have regularly received the published works of Sri Aurobindo as gifts. One would naturally also presume that India’s motto for the conference “One Earth One Family” is also associated with this philosophy, along with the issue recently of the 150 rupee coin commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, presided over by the Prime Minister.
The residential community of Auroville is currently comprised of citizens from more than 60 different countries, who have dedicated their lives to the development of the township, founded in 1968, during the past 54 years, and who now number approximately 2500 men, women, and children. The planning and management, reforestation, architecture, and rural development achieved by this community, from its first beginnings on a desertified south Indian plateau, to the model of an international township in the making, with its many schools, homes, boutiques, restaurants, factories, farms, forests and gardens, are now known throughout the world, and draw thousands of tourists, students, and prospective residents each year. What may not be so well known, however, is that the project has been taken over by the Government of India since late 2021, and throughout 2022 the residents have been displaced from their homes and jobs, their internal communications and publications have been seized and cut, the personnel of their administrative organization have been replaced by Office Order of the new administration appointed by the Government of India, and their futures are threatened by visa cancellation and deportation.
One imagines that this situation must be of urgent concern to UNESCO and its member states, as well as to any of the many governments and organizations throughout the world who have been supporters of the project. And at the same time, however, it is easy to conceive of a dismissive international response to what could be merely rumors meant to discredit the Government of India, or matters of concern only for India, its media and its courts, to deal with in their customary ways. In fact the Madras High Court ruled in August 2022 on a petition submitted by members of the Auroville community, that the Office Orders for taking over Auroville’s administrative bodies were a violation of the Auroville Act and should be rescinded. In the meanwhile, however, the ruling has been withheld on appeal, the Chief Justice who should have heard the appeal has been transferred to another state, the case has been pending without action for five months, and the media has for the most part accepted to publish the erroneous opinions of those who support the government’s point of view.
The newly appointed Governing Board (GB) of the Auroville Foundation, which was established by law under the Auroville Act of 1988 for the purpose of securing the independence of Auroville, is made up largely of government operatives, including the Governor of Tamil Nadu and the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, and its Secretary is an IAS officer from Gujarat under then Chef Minister Modi. This new GB, whose members do not satisfy the criteria established by the Auroville Act, made it clear from the beginning, when it first met in November 2021, that its intention was to take charge of Auroville and put in place an interpretation of the Auroville Act that is contrary to its intended purpose. For example, it authorized its administrative Secretary in Auroville to undertake the immediate implementation of a town-development plan that had been approved in 2010 but which had not been implemented thereafter. The plan itself called for regular five year updates and development plans to be approved annually, requirements disregarded by the Secretary who authorized the destruction of forests and buildings in December 2021, and subsequently contracted the state CPWD to begin construction, bypassing the consultations and approvals of the residents as required by the Auroville Act.
These actions were contested by Auroville residents before the National Green Tribunal which ruled that the Auroville Foundation should cease all development operations until an updated development plan could be approved and environmental clearances obtained. This ruling was appealed before the Supreme Court and has been suspended for the past four months, while development work authorized by the Governing Board and its Secretary has proceeded, causing serious environmental destruction, as well as social disruption. The well-organized and democratically approved opposition to these actions of the Auroville Foundation, which the courts have agreed are in violation of statutory laws and environmental regulations, have been dismissed by the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, in her video recorded public messages, as the reactions of a few disgruntled residents who oppose the disruption of the status quo, a disruption that the Auroville Foundation has deliberately undertaken in order to undermine the authority of the Auroville residents.
In statements made on behalf of the Governing Board of the Auroville Foundation in its appeal to the ruling of the Madras High Court is found the clearest evidence of the government’s intention to reverse the meaning and purpose of the Auroville Foundation Act. In summary, the appeal states that several errors were made in the ruling: Error #1) that the three bodies mentioned in the Act, namely the Governing Board, the International Advisory Council, and the Residents’ Assembly jointly manage the Foundation; Error #2) that Auroville will be administered by the people of Auroville; Error #3) that the intent of the act is collective decision-making by the GB and the Residents’ Assembly; Error #4) that Auroville has been primarily established for the welfare of the residents; Error #5) that the GB needs to consult the RA for matters under its responsibilities, as that would make it practically impossible for the GB to perform its duties; Error #6) that the AVF was established as a democratic institution in which majority voting determines the program. To quote the appeal, “It is clear that the AVF was established for a much larger and higher purpose than the welfare of the residents of Auroville, who are meant to be voluntary workers as part of a Sangha, not a democratic assembly of residents claiming rights to self-rule.” And finally, it says, “It is absolutely clear that in the scheme of the Act, the Governing Board alone has the power, superintendence and management of the Foundation (and here it means by ‘the Foundation’ all the assets and activities of Auroville).
These statements are all in direct opposition to the intention of the Auroville Act as presented to and approved by the Parliament of India in 1988, and as interpreted and implemented by all the members of the three authorised administrative bodies – the Governing Board, the International Advisory Council, and the Residents’ Assembly – since that time. It may help to understand the contradictions and distortions of this interpretation by comparing it with a simple clarification by the renowned Indian legal authority, Fali S. Nariman, who was present at the inception of the Auroville Act and has been a Supreme Court advocate for 50 years, in an opinion he wrote in 2016 on the nature of the Auroville Act, “The Governing Board is not a body constituted to override the powers and functions of the Residents’ Assembly but to promote them – especially since the Residents’ Assembly, by establishing Working Committees, under Section 19(3) of the Act are to be represented in the functions to be performed by the Governing Board. In my view, the Governing Board is expected to act and must act in its statutory role as a consultant – for the prime purpose of promoting the ideals of Auroville – i.e. to co-ordinate activities and services of Auroville in consultation with the Residents’ Assembly – for purposes of cohesion and integration of Auroville [Section 17(a)].”
Auroville was never for a moment meant to be governed by a corporate structure under an authoritarian administration, least of all by government officials. All of the statements of the Mother, Mirra Alfassa, who was the founder of Auroville, clearly indicate that Auroville is to be the creation of its residents whose lives are organized from within in a collective manner according to spiritual principles and for the sake of “a living embodiment of an actual human unity.” There are thousands of pages of writings by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, as well as volumes written by Auroville residents about their experience, which confirm the actual purpose of Auroville and its processes, which are currently being undermined and destroyed by the Government of India. Its plan to impose a structure of authoritarian governance on Auroville, to rapidly construct housing for 10,000 new residents, and encourage an influx of residents from India and abroad by offering training, housing, and amenities to volunteers, is as far as it could be from anything written about the aims and ideals of Auroville, as well as being thoroughly impractical.
And for what purpose, one might ask, has the Government of India chosen to undertake this anomaly and disrupt the life of Auroville in this way. Various indications may be found in the statements and actions of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. For example, in his recent presentation made at the ceremony for the release of the Sri Aurobindo coin, commemorating his 150th birth anniversary, Modi made several remarks about the role played by Sri Aurobindo as a leader in the nationalist movement for liberation. In the course of these remarks he said, “… it is the life of Sri Aurobindo that embodies another strength that India possesses which is also one of the five pledges (of my administration) – Freedom from the mentality of slavery,” – and he then goes on with his misrepresentation of Sri Aurobindo’s image, “ … despite heavy western influence, when on his return to India, Sri Aurobindo came in contact with the Gita during his time in prison, … he emerged as the loudest voice of Indian culture.” This is that person, Modi said, “the same Aurobindo who was once kept away from Indianness in his youth. This is the real strength of India and Indianness.” No reference is made by Modi to Sri Aurobindo’s mature writings on human unity, internationalism, or the evolution of consciousness, for which he is best known. Modi has construed Sri Aurobindo as a hero of Indian Nationalism, and he has chosen to feature the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the international township of Auroville, as symbolic icons of that image. The takeover of Auroville is an attempt to convert the actually successful development of Auroville based on Sri Aurobindo’s later spiritual and universalist philosophy into a shining emblem of the anti-Western, anti-Moslem, anti-Nehruvian secularism, and fundamentalist Hinduism of the ruling BJP party.
In addition to the abuse of the actual residents of Auroville, the over-turning of its ideals and imposition of an authoritarian government, and the distortion and perversion of the true nature of the vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, it is imperative that the member states of UNESCO and the G20 leaders of the world’s possible futures, at this perilous moment in human history, seriously consider the destructive role of this present Indian administration throughout the country in what has come to be known as JCB Nationalism – the JCB being a kind of bulldozer used by government agencies to knock down buildings and destroy forests, violating human communities and squandering natural reserves for the sake of what it considers to be progress. It is necessary to carefully consider the role of this administration in its tacit support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and of the widespread abuse of Moslem minorities in this country. Above all it is necessary to seriously consider the hypocrisy of this government’s motto ‘One Earth One Family” under the influence of which conference members are being asked to accept its leadership in the world.