All is not well with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a well-known institution for the spiritually inclined, with the state government considering a proposal to take over its administration from the hands of the trustees. With several allegations of inmates facing sexual and other forms of harassment coming to light, the ashramâ€™s image of piety is under threat.
Last year, more than 50 inmates submitted written complaints to the district collector as part of a probe into what goes on inside the ashram. The Puducherry government had ordered the probe after the Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare Krishna Tirath wrote to Chief Minister N Rangaswamy, following several complaints from the inmates. The probe, though, could not be carried forward as the ashram management moved the court questioning the jurisdiction of the Puducherry administration over matters concerning the ashram. Currently, the case is pending with the Madras High Court.
TEHELKA is in possession of the testimonies submitted by the 50-odd inmates to District Collector SB Deepak Kumar in September last year. The testimonies lay bare a long list of sexual harassment and cruel treatment of the ashramâ€™s residents. â€śWe had been receiving several complaints even before the inquiry started,â€ť says Kumar. â€śMost of it related to financial irregularities, which is not our concern, and so we did not pay attention. However, serious complaints of sexual harassment and physical torture surfaced after we started the probe.â€ť
Take the case of Jayashree Prasad, 52, an inmate since 1983, who says she was beaten up by a close associate of a trustee in July 1996. While she was working in the dining hall, Nonigopal, who she calls a crony of the then trustee Albert Patel, tried to sexually assault her. She claims she was beaten up when she resisted. Her ordeal was repeated in January 2001 when she resisted the sexual advances made by Krishna Chander, considered close to trustee Ved Prakash Johar. This time she was attacked with metal rods. Her appeal to the trustees for help and protection, she says, went unheeded.
Four of her sisters, too, are ashram inmates. When the youngest of them, Hemlatha, 37, tried to raise the issue with the trustees, not only was she reprimanded but all five sisters were barred from the dining hall and issued a show cause notice threatening eviction from the ashram. Even the police told her that according to the ashram rules, inmates are not allowed to approach them and file cases.
â€śUntil 2009, Rule No. 11 of the ashram forbade residents from reporting internal matters to the media or seeking legal recourse except with the consent of the trustees,â€ť says Raman Reddy, in-charge of the ashramâ€™s archives.
After the rule was revoked, the Prasad sisters managed to file a complaint with the police in 2010. Following this, they allege, they were again asked to move out of the ashram. The case went to the high court, which ruled that the sisters should find accommodation outside the ashram, at Jenny Hostel (an ashram-run establishment outside the ashram premises), until the matter was settled. But as the warden of Jenny Hostel refused to accommodate them, they continued to stay in the ashram.
When the Prasad sisters tried to enter the dining hall, the trustees called the police to stop them. Then, the sisters moved the district court for restoration of their right to food and shelter in the ashram premises. The court ruled in their favour, but the ashram management appealed the verdict in the high court, which said the district court cannot review its order. Following this, the sisters moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court. On 11 July this year, the Supreme Court ordered status quo to be maintained for three weeks, allowing them to stay in the ashram hostel and have food at the dining hall.
When asked why she and her sisters insist on staying in the ashram despite the harassment, Hemlatha says, â€śThe ashram belongs to inmates like us and not to the trustees who have been misusing their authority.â€ť
In another case, Radha Krishna Dasâ€™ wife Shobha Rani allegedly committed suicide in 2003 after facing sexual harassment several times. Das lodged an FIR accusing Nirmal Swain, then the ashramâ€™s legal adviser, of abetment to suicide. The case was dismissed in 2012 by the Puducherry sessions court due to lack of evidence. Two of his daughters, who were ashram inmates, left the ashram after this.
In 2004, Kamal Dora, 60, reported the alleged suicides of residents Kavitha and Meenakshi to the police, and also testified in the Shoba Rani case. He was thrown out of the ashram the next year. Since then, Dora has found shelter in a nearby home for the aged.