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Is the Sri Aurobindo Society making itself liable to legal action?

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

One thing has been troubling us about the SAS and its habitual duplicity, particularly in regard to its origins: Is the SAS’s apparently false account of its origins just a bit of forgivable overstatement, or is it a deliberate breach of the law?

Our doubts came to a head when we read a comment on a previous post, which suggested that SAS’s statement might constitute fraud in the legal sense. That’s a serious allegation, which, if true, would have pretty serious repercussions. So we thought we had better find out what fraud really is.

As far as we can tell (and we must admit that none of us has legal training) the Indian Penal Code (IPC) does not provide a definition of fraud. It does define “fraudulently” in article 25:

A person is said to do a thing fraudulently if he does that thing with intent to defraud but not otherwise.

To a non-lawyer, that’s not much help, since the IPC doesn’t seem to define “defraud”. In order to get a general sense of “fraud” we will turn for the moment to easily available online reference works.

The FARLEX online legal dictionary defines fraud as

A false representation of a matter of fact—whether by words or by conduct, by false or misleading allegations, or by concealment of what should have been disclosed—that deceives and is intended to deceive another so that the individual will act upon it to her or his legal injury.

The dictionary goes on to say:

Fraud must be proved by showing that the defendant’s actions involved five separate elements: (1) a false statement of a material fact, (2) knowledge on the part of the defendant that the statement is untrue, (3) intent on the part of the defendant to deceive the alleged victim, (4) justifiable reliance by the alleged victim on the statement, and (5) injury to the alleged victim as a result.

That’s a lot of legal language, perhaps too much for our immediate purposes—though we may return to it later. For the moment let’s see if Wikipedia can provide a simpler definition:

In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual.

On the same page, Wikipedia gives an example from Gujarat:

Ashok Jadeja has been accused of cheating people from across India of scores [evidently a spellchecker-induced error for “crores”] of rupees on the pretext of having divine blessings.

Following the link to Ashok Jadeja, we learn that this gentleman is

a self-proclaimed “Godman”, who has been accused of swindling money from thousands of people from across India by claiming to have the divine blessings of a goddess of a local caste in Ahmedabad.

Apparently he got people to give him thousands of crores, which he used to buy gold, land, etc. by “claiming divine powers,” etc. Looked at in a certain way, this is uncomfortably close to what the SAS seems to be doing.

Let’s return to the five elements of fraud from the legal dictionary we consulted earlier. It does seem that the SAS has publicly (1) “made a false statement of a material fact” (that the Mother signed the Memorandum of Association); as for guilty knowledge (2), we can’t say for sure whether every current member in the SAS has no knowledge that the statement is untrue, but it would be hard to believe that every member of the Executive Committee is ignorant of this fact. As for points (3)–(5), the situation is less clear. Certainly the deception (3), if any, was motivated partly by simple egoism on the part of the person who wrote the text of the SAS’s statement of origins on its website. Still, most of those who have read the statement doubtless rely (4) on it accuracy. Finally, and this is the crucial question, has there been any injury (5) to an alleged victim?

Perhaps not. But we note on the same web page that gives the SAS’s distorted account of its origins, the following statement:

The Society has been recognized by the Government of India as a Not-for-profit Organization under Section 80G of the Indian Income Tax Act.

And on another page on the same site we find an appeal for donations, which is introduced by the sentence:

Your contribution will help us take forward our varied projects and activities.

Now we repeat we are not lawyers and our only interest in this matter is to prevent an organization that has “Sri Aurobindo” in its name from attracting the unfriendly attention of the Law. (We will explain below why this would be a problem to us.) We have no idea how an Indian judge would look on the statements on the webpage of the SAS. The only clause in the IPC we have found that might apply to the SAS’s online statements is this:

463. Forgery
Whoever makes any false documents or false electronic record or part of a document or electronic record with intent to cause damage or injury, to the public or to any person, or to support any claim or title, or to cause any person to part with property, or to enter into any express or implied contract, or with intent to commit fraud or that fraud may be committed, commits forgery.

The question here is whether an internet webpage, even the official webpage of an organization, can be said to be a “document” or even an “electronic record”. We do know that the new conditions created by the internet have lawyers all over the world scrambling to see how the old law applies to cyberspace. (Here is one attempt to do so.) Given the dubiousness of the whole affair, all we can say for the moment is that it looks like there is at least a slight possibility that the SAS might be in some danger of being investigated in connection with fraud.

We hasten to reassure our readers that we believe that most if not all of the public activities of the SAS are beneficent to a large number of people, and if these people are not troubled by the SAS’s apparent deceptiveness, that’s their problem. We have, besides, no real reason to believe that the SAS is grossly misusing the funds it collects from those who read its website. In this respect, at least, there is no comparison between the SAS and the Godman Ashok Jadeja. But sometimes we wonder whether the “varied projects and activities” that the SAS is “taking forward” have more to do with the expansion of the SAS itself than with the work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, which the SAS is bound to support by its Memorandum of Association. It is hard not to recall here what the Mother said about the SAS in 1972 (thanks to Santosh for drawing our attention to this):

You see, N[avajata, a.k.a. Keshav Dev Poddar] keeps wanting to expand and expand the Sri Aurobindo Society, he buys plots of land worth lakhs of rupees, and instead of the money being used for the general work, it is frittered away…

One only has to take a walk on Pondy’s beach road to be struck by the difference between the huge pretentious buildings erected by the SAS and the miserable state of the SAICE’s Higher Course building, which is hemmed in by two SAS properties. No doubt the office workers of the SAS need lots of desks and so forth. No doubt also visitors to Pondicherry benefit from the accommodations offered at reasonable rates at the SAS guest houses. Still, it might be nice if the SAS utilized a bit more of its impressive wealth for the development of the SAICE and a bit less to build monuments to its own self-conceit.

Here, as once before, we wish to make it clear that we are not directing our criticism towards the ordinary members of the SAS, who have, in some cases, devoted the best years of their lives to help spread the message of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. We do, however, have serious doubts about the current orientation of the Executive Committee, and would like the Committee members to reflect on whether this orientation is really in line with the Memorandum of Association, or whether they are, intentionally or unintentionally, making the SAS liable to possible future legal action.

Such legal action would certainly be regrettable; but, to be honest, when we express concern about the possibility that the SAS may find itself in legal trouble, our concern is not really for the Sri Aurobindo Society. It is for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. As most of our readers know, many people outside Pondicherry and even some in the corridors of power in New Delhi do not distinguish between the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Sri Aurobindo Society, thinking that the two are one body or even that (God Forbid!!!) the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is part of the SAS! So if the SAS does get into legal trouble, we can expect screaming headlines in national dailies accusing the Ashram of legal improprieties.

Few people outside Pondicherry seem to be aware that there is no connection between the Ashram and the SAS except (1) that some members of the SAS in Pondicherry are members of the Ashram or at any rate take part in its activities, and (2) that the SAS, according to its Memorandum of Association, is bound to support the activities of the Ashram’s Centre of Education. As far as we know (and we must admit we are not privy to the Ashram’s records), the Ashram has no responsibility of any sort for the activities of SAS. This is a point that people in India ought to understand.

In addition, many people even in Pondicherry believe that the Mother of the Ashram was the “founder” of the SAS. The facts, as we have shown, are (1) that ten gentleman founded the SAS in Calcutta in 1960; (2) that the organization has spent a good part of the last 52 years trying to convince the world that the Mother had something to do with its foundation; and (3) that during these same 52 years it has solicited donations for its own “varied projects and activities”.

  1. auro plumbers
    September 24, 2012 at 8:41 am

    In this connection the following passage from the Headnote of the judgement of the Supreme Court of India, S.P. Mittal Etc. Etc. vs. Union of India, 1982, may be of interest.

    Sri Aurobindo Society preaches and propagates the ideals and teachings of Sri Aurobindo, inter alia, through its numerous centres scattered throughout India by way of weekly meetings of its members.

    The Mother as the founder-president also conceived of a project of setting up a cultural township known as ‘Auroville’ where people of different countries are expected to engage in cultural, educational and scientific and other pursuits aiming at human unity. The Society has been a channel of funds for setting up the cultural township known as Auroville.

    What we have here is a Supreme Court judgment recording the SAS’s fraudulent claim that the Mother has been its founder-president.

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