Madras High Court sets aside 2012 sexual harassment case against Aurobindo Ashram Trust

Madras High Court

Madras High Court: In a writ petition filed by Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust (‘Trust’) calling for the records of the Deputy Collector culminating in the impugned notice dated 1-10-2012, to quash the same and forbear the Respondents from conducting any enquiry of the nature indicated in the said notice, Dr. Anita Sumanth, J. sets aside the said impugned notice, stating that the trigger for issuance of impugned notice has run its course and the cause of action for such issuance does not survive today.

The Court said that the writ petition is of the year 2012 and many events are seen to have transpired in the intervening time. The notice was issued, interalia, due to a book entitled ‘The lives of Sri Aurobindo’ (‘Book’) authored by Peter Heehs, who was an inmate of the Ashram. There have been conflicting views regarding the book and while one section of the reading public has lauded the book as being an honest portrayal of the life of Sri Aurobindo, the book has come in for serious criticism by some others, who did not agree.

The Court noted Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust v. R. Ramanathan, which is against the said book, which was decided in favour of the Trust.

The cleavage of opinion as regards the contents of the book are stated to have turned some of the inmates against the Ashram/Trust and an inmate by name Vishnu Lalit along with others, had been vocal about his dissent.

Further, the Court noted that it was alleged that there were several unsavoury events/incidents that had taken place in the Ashram premises. These include allegations of sexual harassment, suicide of some inmates and serious malpractices in the functioning of the school run by the Ashram. It said that without doubt, these situations call for swift and serious action. However, these instances are of yester year’s, contemporaneous with the filing of earlier writ petitions and civil suits that have been, after detailed discussion, been closed in favour of the Trust by the Courts. Thus, there is no reason to re-visit those instances now.

The Court said that the genesis of the allegations leading to the issuance of the impugned notice are complaints by an inmate Vishnu Lalit and the then Member of Legislative Assembly, Ashok Anand. However, none of the private respondents, whosoever survived, have chosen to continue or perpetrate their allegations made in 2012, now. Thus, it viewed that the writ petition is effectively rendered infructuous.

Further, it said that there is no other material apart from the complaints of Vishnu Lalit and Ashok Anand that are the sole trigger points to justify continuation of the impugned notice/proceedings, at this juncture. Thus, the Court held that the trigger for issuance of impugned notice has run its course and the cause of action for such issuance does not survive today.

[Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust v. District Collector, 2023 SCC OnLine Mad 1300, decided on 23-02-2023]

Judgment by: Justice Dr. Anita Sumant

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For Petitioner: Advocate C.A. Diwakar;

For Respondents: Additional Govt. Pleader Dr. B. Ramaswamy, Advocate Veerapandian.

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