Bulldozers, violence and politics shatter an Indian dream of utopia | India


Nestled in the heart of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, isolated from the world by a young forest, lies a community that wants to change the world. Ask the inhabitants of Auroville, who come from more than 60 countries, what they do there and the answer will be much the same as for more than five decades: “The purpose of Auroville is to achieve the human unity.

Auroville was founded in 1968, with the vision of building an international city to disrupt rigid class and caste systems and be free from pollution, traffic, chaos, waste, social isolation and suburban sprawl that have poisoned modern urban environments.

But over the past few months, harmony has turned to discord over attempts to transform Auroville from a quiet eco-community into a pioneering utopian city.

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Lata, a resident of Auroville since the 1980s, said she had “never seen Auroville fractured like this”. “This is the first time that such violence has penetrated the community,” she added. “What about the dream of unity that brought us all here?

Tensions came to a head last month when JCBs entered the forests of Auroville to initiate a controversial development that created an unprecedented schism in the peace-loving community. Dozens of residents threw themselves in front of the bulldozers, while others supported the demolitions. A case against the project is currently being heard in India’s top environmental court.

“It’s not just valuable trees and buildings that have been bulldozed, it’s community processes, the unity that holds Auroville together,” said Isa Pieta, 26, who was present. “I can’t believe they would go this far, sacrifice this much to get what they wanted.”

The breakup is blamed by many on a “stranger”. Since 1988, although the Indian government has had jurisdiction over Auroville, the community has been largely left to fend for itself. But in July, Jayanti Ravi, a civil servant, arrived as the new secretary of the Auroville Foundation and immediately began implementing the polarizing development program.

Members of the Auroville colony. Photography: Hemis/Alamy

Ravi’s actions sent the community into a tailspin; some believe she is giving Auroville the boost it needs after years of stasis and dysfunction, others say she is trampling on democratic community processes and her agenda is dividing the community at the seams.

Many also wondered if his motives were mired in politics. Ravi has held high-level positions in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, and in 2019 she wrote a book which carried a Modi recommendation on its cover.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in Sri Aurobindo, the founding guru of Auroville, by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although Aurobindo’s teachings spoke explicitly against the communal politics that became commonplace under the BJP, its leaders made a distinct attempt to defend Aurobindo as the foremost proponent of Hindutva ideology, which believes that the India should be a Hindu rather than a secular state. Modi visited Auroville in 2018.

Many Auroville residents fear the sudden development spurt, are entangled in a larger Hindu nationalist agenda to co-opt Aurobindo’s legacy, or to turn their home into a lucrative site for spiritual tourism.

“It is high time for Auroville to move forward,” Ravi told the Observer. “It is Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birthday, which India is celebrating, and this development is something that is long overdue.”

Auroville (City of Dawn) was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa.
Auroville (City of Dawn) was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa. Photography: Frédéric Soltan/Sygma/Getty Images

Auroville was first imagined in the 1920s by Sri Aurobindo, an Indian freedom fighter who became a leading Indian philosopher and guru, and his French devotee and collaborator, Mirra Alfassa, known as ” the mother”. Together, in Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry, they envisioned building a new city where humanity could achieve unity.

After Sri Aurobindo’s death, Alfassa inaugurated Auroville in 1968 on barren land a few miles from the ashram Together with French architect Roger Anger, Alfassa created the Galaxy Plan, a vision of how a perfect city should be built, designed according to a plan of “sacred geometry”. She wanted Auroville to be a “city for humanity” housing 50,000 people, with 75% set aside as a green belt for agriculture and forestry. This was then translated into an official master plan, which was approved by the people of Auroville and the Indian government.

Today, Auroville is home to around 3,200 people, mostly from Europe, India and the United States. They have implemented alternative models of currency, land ownership, education and governance, planted over three million trees to revitalize the earth and their use of renewable energy and sustainable lifestyles are among the best in the world.

But in recent decades plans for the city have stalled, to the frustration of many. “Nothing moved because for years we were stuck between two factions,” said resident Gijs Spoor. On one side of the divide are residents who believe that Auroville will only succeed if it is built exactly as envisioned in the master plan, and that any sacred geometry revisions, or further delays, would hamper the “forward vision”. -keeper” of the Mother.

“This master plan is more futuristic than we can even imagine, but unless we can build it, why are we here?” said Anu Majumdar, who has lived in Auroville since 1979. “Trees alone will not solve all of humanity’s problems. We are currently 3,200 people living on 3,300 acres of land, which is not sustainable. We have to build the city for 50,000.”

But another group, mostly younger Aurovillians, see the utopian goal through a different environmental lens and argue that the master plan, which was last reviewed and voted on by the community 22 years ago, needs to be put on hold. up to date.

“We’re not anti-development, we’re just pro-development in a way that really respects nature, respects the environment, the water, the millions of trees we’ve planted that will decide our survival. on this earth,” Pieta said. , born in Auroville. “Refusing to adapt the master plan because it would be ‘blocking the dream of the Mother’ smacks of spiritual authoritarianism,” she added. “I don’t think it was the Mother’s dream to destroy the living environment around us.”

It is in this impasse that Ravi arrived. Along with a new foundation board, also appointed by the government, it was decided to start building the master plan immediately, starting with a circular route known as The Crown. They also asked for 10 billion rupees (£9 million) in government grants. “This place is something very beautiful that India has given so magnanimously and we can have no more decay and stagnation,” Ravi said. “The master plan has already been accepted by the inhabitants; it is my mandate to implement it.

Alternatives were submitted by concerned residents, but then, without warning, on December 4, bulldozers arrived in the forest, accompanied by police. That night, dozens of protesting Aurovillians stood in their way and prevented any demolition. But five days later the JCBs returned and this time razed a 25-year-old youth center and hundreds of trees.

For many Aurovillians, the mode of demolition – including the alleged abuse of residents – was unprecedented violence and division in their community, and the resounding response was one of devastation, shock and pain.

Some residents filed a lawsuit against the Auroville Foundation in the Green Tribunal, India’s highest environmental court, which led to a temporary halt to all tree felling. And after a petition has been signed by more than 500 residents, a request to suspend development is being debated by the residents’ assembly, a process that is expected to take more than a month.

The fractures in the community were fully exposed at an assembly meeting in late December. It was the biggest turnout in years and descended into chaos. Ravi’s attempt to address the residents caused an uproar. There were cries of “can we all calm down”, calls for deep breathing and outbreaks of group chants of “Om” to try and get things under control.

Nevertheless, many believe that, as fragmented as the community is today, the Auroville project is not completely lost. “The community is fractured but I think this darkness has done some good,” said Sandeep Vinod Sarah, a resident who filed the case in court. “We are finally energized and confronted with our own divisions. Now is the time to heal. »

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