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Auroville is having a Crown headache — The laboratory of evolution is divided

At Auroville, friendships have soured, giving way to deep fissures threatening the lofty ideal of ‘human unity’.

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On a quiet afternoon, a motorbike noisily sputtered past Number 1 Crown Road, abruptly ending a heated discussion inside the working committee’s office. Residents of this experimental town, Auroville, built on the teachings of Mirra Alfassa or ‘The Mother’, a spiritual collaborator of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, were upset.

“Let alone motorbikes, we have never seen so many cars in Auroville,” commented Renu Neogy, a resident who has spent four decades here, and served on the Auroville Land Board for the past three years. She was recently “fired” by the Auroville Foundation, she said. “Our job was to protect and purchase land for Auroville.”

Seen as a “laboratory of evolution” for people from across the world to come and realise “human unity”, Auroville has had a rough year steeped in disharmony. A section of Aurovillians have clashed with the Central government-appointed Gujarat cadre IAS officer Jayanti S. Ravi, who took over as secretary to the Auroville Foundation in July 2021. She is determined to implement ‘The Mother’s’ dream of accommodating 50,000 people in this township, which currently holds 3305 residents. Ravi’s infra push to build the Crown Road, which saw the Auroville Youth Centre bulldozed to the ground and numerous trees felled, has led to a battle to interpret this dream.

Many residents argue that the Foundation has been needlessly confrontational with them. They accuse the new Auroville management of a series of “takeovers” in the past two months — of the outreach media, the archives, several working groups and even Auronet, an internal online channel through which Aurovillians communicate.

“In other words, the written documentation of Auroville’s entire history along with photos, videos etc, of its people is now in danger, and in hands of people who do not represent the Residents’ Assembly nor the community at large by any means,” said a press note released by the working committee opposed to the infra push.

Essentially, the Foundation has set up a “parallel governance” system, they said. This, after a seven-member working committee, a statutory body originally selected by the Resident’s Assembly, split 4-3 in support of the Crown Road project. The two splintered factions, which have since acquired seven members each to form two full working committees, claim to be the bonafide entity and term the other “illegitimate”.

Like Neogy, there are more Aurovillians who said they were “dismissed” or “fired” from their positions. They claimed the dismissal came through a letter from the secretary’s office, informing them that a ‘competent authority’ had removed them from service. All the appointments, they spoke of, have taken place through a selection process approved by the larger Resident’s Assembly, one of three legitimate bodies under the Auroville Foundation Act, which came into place in 1988.

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The other faction

On the other side, is Anu Majumdar, who said she is currently serving in the “legitimate” Working Committee, which supports the secretary’s infra push. “Auroville is a vision-born city, not ours, but the Mother’s, bridging the spiritual with the material,” she wrote in an email to ThePrint. “The rebellion against the Crown Road project was already there in the late ’80s by a faction, when there were barely any trees, yet deliberately planted on the path once the master plan was approved,” Majumdar said, adding that the Crown is the next most important feature of the city after the Matrimandir.

“The Crown project circles the city centre, creating Auroville’s internal pedestrian urban life, while holding together all the four zones in unity. Each time work has been ready to start on the Crown, it has been intentionally pushed back with protests, petitions and corrupted information and by using trees as a weapon of confusion and discord to hold territory.”

On the ground, this confrontation plays out in the form of FIRs, court cases, withholding of visas for foreign residents, or simply, not making eye contact with the opposite faction. At the end of May, six Aurovillians were slapped with FIRs for “an illegal takeover of records and communication systems”. Among them was Neogy and her colleague Hemant Lamba, who were booked for rioting, forgery, and computer-related offences.

“This situation was unthinkable even eight months ago,” Isa Prieto, an Auroville youth, told ThePrint. “I am 27 and should be having a good time. Instead, I was spending the night at the Town Hall, where the working committee is meant to function out of, sitting in watch for people to break in and change the locks!”

Friendships have soured, deep fissures threatening the lofty ideal of ‘human unity’. “We have always had an amicable relationship within the community,” said an Aurovillian who did not wish to be named. “The only problem we are having right now is from the secretary.”

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Environment vs development

The felling of trees at Auroville’s Bliss and Darkali forests have the ‘old guards’ up in arms. In December 2021, reports had suggested that the Foundation had felled a total of 898 trees belonging to 44 species in both forests to make way for the road project. Bliss surrounds the Youth center, which was razed, while Darkali forest has water catchments that residents say are vital to the biodiversity of the area.

As matters came to a head, the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal in Chennai directed the Auroville Foundation in April 2022 to stop felling more trees until a joint committee inspected the site. The NGT-appointed committee was given two months.

Markings made by the Auroville Foundation in Darkali forest of Auroville to make way for the 'Crown'. | Photo: Anusha Sood/ThePrint
Markings made by the Auroville Foundation in Darkali forest of Auroville to make way for the ‘Crown’. | Photo: Anusha Sood/ThePrint

Natasha Storey was determined to meet with the inspection committee. As a forester and a member of the Town Development Council, who had spent time in Darkali forest, Storey knew the decision would be important. She wanted to be present when the forest department conducted its survey as part of the NGT’s joint committee inspection. Storey told ThePrint that when the joint committee members visited Auroville on 2 July, the Auroville Foundation did not inform them. “But we made sure we got an audience with them.”

The forest department officials began the survey on 6 July. According to Storey, the residents had undertaken an extensive GPS survey, of their own, which they plan to submit to the joint committee which has details of tree cover, canopy cover, and effects the road will have on the roots on the ground.

Storey remembers the sinking feeling in her gut that morning. “We have had to constantly assert ourselves, elbowing our way in to be heard, which really doesn’t feel right,” she said, about people from the opposing faction. “There was a sudden feeling that this attempt to cut forests, take over the roads and offices, was to kill our spirit. I felt throttled, felt like they were squeezing the Auroville spirit,” she said.

Thirty-six-year-old Jagadeesh, an architect as well as the face of the Foundation’s media wing, said some residents had been organising protests since the clearing work began for the Crown Road project last year. “This has been an element in the masterplan and the galaxy for the last 50 years, there is nothing new,” she said. “But people have been protesting this work and went to the NGT to get a stay order.”

For now, through legal recourse, some Aurovillians have managed to silence the noise of the bulldozers (JCBs) and the thuds of trees as they come crashing to the ground.

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The inclusivity question

Jagadeesh said the city was envisioned by the ‘Mother’ for 50,000 people but just over 3000 live here now. “This is meant to be a dense and compact city, a model city that can be replicated everywhere in the world,” she said. The Foundation has been hiring more architects and urban planners from outside to help advise the planners, she said. “We have to find creative and futuristic solutions for high-density living.”

A December 2021 census conducted by the Auroville Resident Service pegs Auroville’s residents at 3,305, of which 1,513 are Indians, among them roughly 700 are Tamil residents.

“The entry policy to Auroville is designed to keep Tamil people out. What you see right now as the movement to reach out (to Tamil Aurovillians) is a movement of reversal of this trend, which has been set in place, there is a very strong colonial attitude,” Jagadeesh alleged.

She was referring to the 28 May event held at Bharat Nivas Auditorium within Auroville. The Foundation had invited Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry and Dr. Tamilisai Soundararajan, member of Auroville’s governing board, to address Aurovillians in Tamil.

Soundararajan, with Secretary Ravi by her side, began her speech by saying the dream of ‘The Mother’ for setting up a township with 50,000 people has not been realised for half-a-century and it is an “unpardonable blunder”. She urged the audience to discard misinformation and support the dream. To fulfil Mother’s dream is “purely a selfless motive,” she said.

Those in the know said that the gathering attracted close to a hundred people, some of them were not even Aurovillians, but residents from villages neighbouring the community. “The talk given in Tamil was designed to create a narrow perspective,” said a resident who had moved to Auroville six years ago from another part of Tamil Nadu, who did not wish to be named. To create a division between the foreigners and the Tamils, she added.

To counter the narrative, on 13 June, some Tamil youth members organised a gathering to educate Tamil residents about the Resident’s Assembly and teach people about our responsibilities.

“I have been really saddened to see the confidence and authority with which Auroville Foundation members, who have just walked into the community, judge people here and say all kinds of things,” she added.

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Sri Aurobindo: In Modi’s vision

On 24 December 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the first high-level committee meeting to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, to be celebrated on 15 August this year.

Modi said that the two aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of ‘revolution’ and ‘evolution’ were of key importance and should be emphasised.

A month later, Sanjeev Sanyal, Member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister tweeted his appreciation of the Union Ministry of Culture: “Wonderful to see Sri Aurobindo in the Republic Day parade. Often forgotten that he was one of the founders of revolutionary resistance to British occupation of India. Well done.”

Over at Auroville, plans are afoot to establish a 24×7 Auroville TV in collaboration with Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries. It will have a spiritual hour in the morning and documentaries aired in the evening.

At the media interface office, Ashay Singh, who is in-charge of the initiative, said that the idea was to create content with alignment of the vision of ‘The Mother’ and Sri Aurobindo. It will connect with the “ethos of Yoga.” “There is a lot of content on social media about Auroville but it is also sometimes very misleading, it gives a different vibe about the place,” he said. “If people compare it to ‘Burning Man’ of India, I think it completely misses the point.”

Some see the secretary’s push for the Crown Road project as an attempt by the RSS-BJP to take over the spiritual community by using architecture as a tool for cultural assertion like in Jallianwala Bagh, Sabarmati Ashram or even Delhi’s Central Vista.

Others think that’s far-fetched. “My opinion is that the new secretary has realised that she has come to Auroville during a very momentous year. A lot of what she is doing now is driven by her own ambition. Auroville serves as a plank for her to show how much she can achieve,” said a person who is very familiar with the internal workings of Auroville, who did not wish to be identified. This view was shared by many in Auroville.

“The thing with Auroville is that people don’t want too much confrontation. It is not a place where dramatic things happen overnight,” this person said. He said development work was stuck for many years “for a number of reasons.”

“One is a lack of funding. Two, a lack of clarity on the process since the internal decision-making structures of Auroville are very complicated,” he added.

ThePrint’s repeated attempts via call, SMS, and email to reach out to Ravi to meet or speak over the phone were not acknowledged.

“There are two sets of contradicting values playing out. One, which has fundamentals of human unity: we respect diversity, views, participation, and collaboration,” said Lamba, another working committee member from the group opposed to the Secretary’s plans. “The other value is that of authority of ‘come what may people have to follow’. This is what is creating friction.”

The rivalry has spilled into Aurovillians’ personal lives–friends have turned foes; easy camaraderie between families have soured. “About 800 people don’t look at me or don’t talk to me. I have a five-year-old son, he is refused play dates because he is associated with me,” said Jagadeesh.

In all this, Auroville’s collaborative spirit has become the casualty.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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