Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Were the Prasad sisters victim of an internal scuffle within the Sri Aurobindo ashram?

December 2014

Survivor speak

Just a day after the shocking mass suicide attempt by the seven member family in Puducherry on December 17, the eldest daughter of the Gadadar Prasad from Bihar still remains dazed at the bleak future staring at her.

Lying in the hospital bed in medical ward number 108 at the Pondicherry government hospital with a woman police constable guarding her, Jayashree does not seem to mourn the death of three of her family
members nor their decision to commit mass suicide.

"If we are chased out of our homes, where else can we go. I am 55 and have spent the last 35  years of my life here," she says."We are not in touch with any of our relatives and have nowhere to go."

Jayashree says that she and her family had desperately tried all ways known to them to stop their eviction. "We had approached the police several times, we had even appealed to the chief minister but none helped," she says. "We have no choice."

Jayashree then begins her tirade against the Aurobindo ashram and its management. "We suffered sexual harassment for a long time from the trustee and his henchmen. Most of the young men and women suffer in silence. The ashram is a government unto itself," she says

These allegations have been made by Gadadar and his family several times in the past and could not be proven in any court.

When asked about the their failure to prove the allegations, Jayashree turns away. "When i think of all that I get depressed again," she says.

While Gadadar Prasad (80) and his three daughters including Nivedita and Hemalatha could be rescued, his wife Shantidevi and two daughters Arunashree and Rajashree drowned in the sea near Kalapet.

Were the Prasad sisters victims?

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 on the properties worth crores 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 being advised by another ashramite Sraddalu Ranande, who has been fighting against the ashram trust legally for several years demanding that it be dissolved sighting 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 bad light. When they could not succeed in it, 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 member of the ashram since 1968, said that 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 so many cases have been filed against them?” asks Sadhana. “We have only been fighting to preserve the sanctity of this ashram and its glory.”

However, the 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 over the years and presently has 1200 members from all over. A majority of them are from the eastern states of Odissa and West Bengal. The ashram also runs a
school where 400 students are presently studying. Besides, the ashram runs and owns several guest houses 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

Senior ashramite and a representative of the management Matriprasad says that every year around 25 to 30 new members are added to the ashram. “Many people want to join us but we can afford to take only a few as our resources are limited. The members of the ashram need to lead a spiritual life and do the work assigned to them. In return, all their basic needs will be taken care of,” he says. “We follow a very simple way of life and emphasize on silence above all,” he says.

Ashram has failed to win over locals

For the past three days, the Aurobindo ashram and its various properties including the ashram school and a petrol bunk owned by the ashram have been attacked by various fringe political outfits including Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam and other organizations. 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 themselves. 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 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 practice
silence here and communicate only when necessary. Sometimes, our silence is taken as rude behavior,” says Matriprasad, a senior member of the ashram. “We are not evangelists and have no need to do any
propaganda related service,” he says.

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