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November 2005


Asking hard questions

- Carel

Ajoy Bagchi“How far has the Community progressed on the path set by The Mother,” wonders Governing Board member Shri Ajoy Bagchi


Ajoy Bagchi has a long-standing relationship with Auroville. “Auroville is always in my mind,” says the soft-spoken former civil servant. “I first came to Auroville in 1992, on the occasion of a public hearing organised by The People's Commission on Environment and Development India. Shortly afterwards I joined the first Governing Board chaired by Dr. Karan Singh and was on it till 1995. In 2004, I was re-appointed to the Board and since then my interaction with Auroville has substantially increased and deepened.”

Ajoy Bagchi comes from a teacher's family. His father, a professor of English literature and an expert on Shakespeare, awakened his son's interest in academics, teaching and research, particularly in the life sciences. But life took a different turn. Ajoy Bagchi joined the Indian Postal Service, one of the administrative services of India , where he worked for 35 years in diverse positions. On one occasion, purely by chance, he was tasked to escort Dr. Karan Singh, who had then just taken over as Minister for Health and Family Planning. “A few days later he asked me to join him as his special assistant in the Ministry. I accepted”. He says, “The next 3 ½ years I had the rare opportunity to watch and learn from close quarters how decisions are made at the highest levels. Perhaps nobody could be a better teacher than Dr. Karan Singh”. In 1989, he retired from the Government. Dr Karan Singh once again asked him to work for him. “I readily accepted his invitation as I consider it a privilege to serve a person of such eminence and intellectual lustre. Whenever I hear him speak, I am reminded of another great orator, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, [the President of India from 1962 to 1967, eds.] for, like him, he has this rare ability to discourse on many topics with such clarity and erudition.”

At present Mr. Bagchi is the Executive Director of the People's Commission on Environment and Development (PCED) set up in 1990, of which Dr. Karan Singh is the president. The PCED is a non-governmental, not-for-profit association, which holds public hearings in the country to harvest people's perspectives on environmental and development issues to induct them into the government's decision-making process.

“When Dr. Karan Singh asked me to join the Auroville Foundation's Governing Board, I readily accepted, for I felt another opportunity had come my way to contribute in whatever small way to Auroville's development. Moreover, I know that for Dr. Karan Singh, who normally never accepts the same position twice, Auroville is something very special. For him, to be Chairman of the Auroville Foundation is not just another job; he considers it his karmic duty to help promote Sri Aurobindo's and The Mother's vision. He is not only a great devotee of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother but also perhaps the greatest exponent alive of their philosophy.

But as he has many responsibilities, I help him with Auroville affairs by being a kind of conduit between him and the Aurovilians. As such I have been privy to the complex issues that the Working Committee and other groups bring to the Chairman's attention. This time, in Auroville, I have extended my stay to a week, so that I have the opportunity to meet with as many Aurovilians as possible.” He adds that, meeting so many Aurovilians in their work settings and in meetings has helped to substantially widen his perspective.

While complimenting Auroville on the growth and developments of the last years – “the seed planted by The Mother is developing into a beautiful tree,” he says poetically – he also asked hard questions about how that development is taking shape. “In early July I was inspired to write a letter to the community, which I sent through the Working Committee, for I had started to wonder if we are nearing the end of the Auroville ‘experiment.' In the beginning, Aurovilians joined, inspired by The Mother, and gave up everything to come to Auroville, to a climatically-difficult part of the country and live in relatively austere conditions. Today it appears to be different; I have heard that now people joining Auroville have many demands. I started to wonder to what extent people keep asking themselves what they are here for, whether they are steadfastly moving towards the Mother's vision or moving away from it. And that led to my first question. The Mother had a vision of an international conclave, which through its way of life and thought will foster human unity. She gave certain guidelines for the Auroville community to follow so that this experiment could evolve on the lines of Her vision. Has the community, as a collective, paused from its daily preoccupation to introspect, discuss and debate the present situation in the context of the Mother's benchmarks? Has any study been undertaken to determine whether Auroville is moving in the direction set by Her? How far it has progressed on the path set by Her and what were and are the impediments in the way? And what does the community need to do to overcome these impediments and smoothen Auroville's progression in the desired direction?

“These questions were followed by others, which came up when I was discussing a range of issues with various Aurovilians. Over the years, many institutions have been designed to facilitate the implementation of Auroville's vision. But are these institutions really representative of the Residents Assembly and do they adequately reflect, in their deliberations and actions, the diversity of views and focus that exist within the Community? Have there been conscious efforts by the Working Committee and the other working groups to regularly harvest, through acceptable mechanisms, the diversity of perceptions that exist within the community? And is there any perspective on how to make the interaction between the three bodies of the Auroville Foundation – the Governing Board, the International Advisory Council and the Residents' Assembly – more cohesive so that the decisions and advice these bodies tender are based on a synthesis of the entirety of the views?”

Lastly, Mr. Bagchi focused on Auroville's often-unfavourable image in some quarters of the country's administrative apparatus. “How this image came to be propagated is easy to understand. Every government collects information (also termed ‘intelligence') about various matters, which it considers important for its decision-making process. In Auroville's case, it is apparent that the intelligence-gathering agencies have been funnelling up through their hierarchy the unfavourable impressions that their agents have been picking up from its immediate surroundings. It has to be accepted that a predominantly Western community with a different lifestyle and worldview is surrounded by a community that remains largely conservative and orthodox in its approach to life and the world. In other words, the socio-economic matrix of Auroville is at considerable variance with that in which the surrounding people find their roots. This mismatch between the ethoses of two distinct communities makes for the deficit of understanding and trust in one about the other and contributes to the unhappy image. A collective and conscious effort is urgently indicated to devise steps that will help in creating an enabling climate of understanding and trust among the surrounding population towards Auroville, its mission and its residents.” And he explained that, in his view, Auroville would need the positive support from those in the surrounding villages. “The villagers must feel that Auroville belongs as much to them, that it is not an imposition from outside. What is essential is to emotionally integrate them with Auroville, without doubt a difficult task. Auroville appears as an island amidst a sea of a conservative rural community, and unless there is a stronger emotional bond between the two, the problems will continue to surface.

“These are deeper questions and I am least qualified to search for answers. But they are important and need to be studied and addressed,” said Mr. Bagchi in an open interaction with the community on September 29th, while discussing his letter and the responses to it from Aurovilians. “This exercise is one for the community and should not involve outsiders, not me, nor other Governing Board members. Though, of course, we will be ready to help if called upon by the community.”


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