Fifty-four years ago this month, a frail French lady sat on a stool in Pondicherry. She then energetically wrote seven pithy sentences. Facing Sri Aurobindo’s samadhi through her window, Mirra Alfassa, ‘The Mother’, said that the sentences came from somewhere above. Those seven sentences are together called The Auroville Charter, which gave birth to an audacious experiment for a new world. To the Mother, an occultist, numbers were a language. Seven signified “realisation”. She welcomed to Auroville, an ‘experimental’ township right outside Pondicherry city, all those willing to collaborate in furthering future realisations of human unity. In that collective pursuit, however, Auroville has stumbled periodically. It is yet again heading to the courts. How should India save Auroville again?
I first visited Auroville 20 years ago. Fascinated, I returned in 2007 to live in its adjoining villages. As a student of governance, I was interested in directly observing the unique society that many here from all over the world were genuinely trying to build. The experiment was also palpably erring.
Silverback gorillas in a spiritual beehive
Experiments to create socio-economically equal societies are not new. Pejoratively naming such intentional communities “utopian socialism”, Karl Marx criticised them for rejecting experiments in political equality. He found such small communes naïve in ignoring inherent human class struggles. Nations including India, however, embraced political equality through one-person-one-vote-one-value. Yet, the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar – a formidable leader of oppressed classes – knew that such political equality will hardly shake the socio-economic inequities of India, grounded in castes.
“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?” he asked in his fiery final speech to the Constituent Assembly. In the end, he found the spiritual equality of Buddhism meaningful. Beginning with the Buddha, Indian ‘sanghas’ or communes have experimented with spiritual equality for long. Saint Vallalar, living barely 60 km from Pondicherry, for example, took sanghas beyond religious boundaries. In 1872, he pioneered an experiment of a universal brotherhood society of socio-economic-spiritual equals. Almost a century later, the Mother, summoning an unparalleled global audience, envisioned a large international city – a spiritual hive collaboratively built by divinely equal bees – to benefit the whole of humanity. Auroville is now home to people from nearly 60 nationalities.
Yet, through her “no-politics” dictum, the Mother explicitly kept out political equality from the experiment. Post her death, authority struggles became inevitable in Auroville. As our political behaviours are still like primates, silverback gorillas readily grabbed authority roles in the spiritual beehive, resulting in periodic court battles. Thirty years ago, Parliament emphatically intervened with an Auroville Foundation Act to create a legal authority structure. Now, some Auroville residents are readying to legally challenge the contours of the Act.
What is the issue?
Since Auroville’s inception, individual residents have commendably advanced alternative education, environmental preservation, organic agriculture and sustainable buildings. As a collective experiment, though, Auroville has significantly underachieved its mission. Celebrated economist Mancur Olson predicted this conundrum in his classic The Logic of Collective Action. To retain bargaining power, successful individuals in societies form special interest groups. Coalitions then protect group members, and distribute the society’s output to them, impeding collective progress. In tourism-driven Auroville, such special interest coalitions take forms such as the Entry group, Forest group, Housing group, Guesthouses group, and Commerce group. Auroville’s progress has indeed been demonstrably stymied. Without a political shock, it is difficult to dislodge such coalitions. Exercising powers under the Auroville Act, the central government recently initiated such shocks. Understandably, Auroville’s special interest groups are fighting against it. A protracted judicial process helps them both mitigate shocks and remain relevant.
The courts will clarify. What should not need clarification, however, is Indian authorities’ jurisdiction over the territory. In a telling moment last December, foreign youths were captured on video admonishing local police that Auroville is beyond their jurisdiction. Similarly, some youth daringly wrote to the resident secretary-level IAS officer that she does not have jurisdiction over Auroville.
What should India do?
First, India has been generously hosting an international experiment, but it cannot be a bystander of foreign residents’ rebellion against Indian authorities. The Auroville Act allows residents to only “assist”, not govern. And to dispel ambiguities and thwart linguistic gymnastics, in the Delhi vs Union of India case, a Constitution Bench has settled the difference between “assist” and “aid” in citizenry participation. Still, either out of ignorance or arrogance, some foreign residents are challenging India’s territorial integrity. As the territory is under the central government, the cabinet should quell such unprecedented revolt – that arms itself with sophisticated, global fake news campaigns – by recommending an emergency ordinance on Auroville. After addressing the key governance issues, it should return Auroville back to its residents.
Second, many law-abiding foreign residents have laudably dedicated themselves to Auroville, but they now fear losing their visas. The government should offer such residents long-term visas.
Third, Auroville has an International Advisory Council, but no local neighbourhood board. The government should immediately form a Neighbourhood Advisory Council comprising the three local panchayat presidents and prominent local citizens to integrate the experiment better with the bioregion.
Finally, Auroville has only 2,500 residents, but nearly 10,000 villagers serve the community every day. Sadly, as coalitions protect special interests by closing access, these villagers are not welcomed as fellow Aurovilians. Choosing co-travellers for a journey is an art, while immigration mandates tests. For his riskiest Trans-Antarctic expedition on the Endurance, Shackleton famously chose people by making them sing. The Mother too simply chose by looking at people’s photographs. Yet today, Auroville’s spirituality tests for villagers resemble UK’s infamous virginity tests for immigrants. The government should simply declare all village employees eligible to be Aurovilians.
The Mother said that villagers were closer to the Divine than intellectuals from abroad. Today, the Indian villagers are not seen as “human enough” in the human unity experiment. It is this mindset that needs to change, and the government should lead.
Satheesh Namasivayam was formerly affiliated with the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he graduated from. He co-authored ‘Leading without Licence’. Views are personal.