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Anti-Aurubindo book action: SC frowns upon litigation involving public trusts, indirectly bats for freedom of expression

In Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust and Ors vs R Ramanathan and Ors, a Supreme Court bench comprising justices Madan B Lokur and SA Bobde, refused to intervene in the dispute between the Aurobindo Ashram Trust and the respondents over the former’s failure to take steps to seek confiscation of copies of the book, “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” written by Peter Heehs.

The book was published by Columbia University Press in the US in 2008, and is reportedly critical of Aurobindo. The respondents allege that the book contains deliberate and baseless distortions relating to Aurobindo’s life, to the effect that he had romantic affairs with the Mother, involving veiled tantric practices; that he was a frequent liar and lied about his spiritual experiences, that his spiritual experiences were based on sexual and schizophrenic stimuli and that he was the initiator of the Hindu-Muslim divide and was responsible for the partition of the country.

The respondents also alleged that Hees impersonated as one of the founders of the archives of Aurobindo Ashram. The Odisha Government has ordered forfeiture of the book under Section 95 of the CrPC for being a work punishable under Section 295A of the IPC

The state government concluded that the objectionable book contained matters which were deliberately and maliciously intended to insult the religious beliefs of the devotees of Aurobindo.

The respondents alleged that the appellant did not expel the author from the Ashram, or condemn and dissociate the Trust from the sacrilegious work. They also alleged that the appellant assisted the author in getting a visa for his continued stay in India by standing guarantee for him.

The Madras high court had held that since the Ashram had nothing to do with the publication of the book by one of its inmates, it could not be held that there is a breach of trust. But it concluded that the respondents had the locus to file a suit under Section 92 Civil Procedure Code, for removal of the trustees.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court did not go into the question whether the book ought at all to be proscribed or its sale prohibited, as the matter is very much alive before the Orissa high court, and it is for that Court to take a final call on the legality of the prohibition on circulation of the book.

The Supreme Court has held that the appellants have done what could reasonably be expected of them in relation to the book, pending a determination by the Orissa high court. More important, the Supreme Court has opined that the appellants’ mild reaction to the book’s contents could not be a ground for removal of the trustees. “Failure to take steps to ban a book that is critical of the philosophical and spiritual guru of a trust would not fall within the compass of administration of the trust”, the bench observed.

The Supreme Court thus set aside the Madras high court’s judgment, and allowed the application filed by the appellants for revocation of leave granted to respondents to initiate proceedings under Section 92 of the CPC

Although the Supreme Court did not go into the issue of whether the order banning the circulation of the book was justified, its defence of the Ashram, is interesting. In effect, it says that failure to seek the banning of the book is no reflection on the administration of the trust. This can be construed as a minor triumph for freedom of expression, even if remotely relevant.

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