Current issue Archive copies Auroville Experience June-July 2008
Auroville refutes BBC broadcast
Auroville has dismissed as ‘an outrageous piece of tabloid journalism' a film broadcast on the BBC programme NewsNight and BBC World Service alleging that Auroville condones sexual exploitation of children by Aurovilians.
It started innocently. On March 19, 2008, OutreachMedia, the Auroville service set-up to look after the logistics of visiting journalists [see the article Managing the Media in Auroville Today # 231, May 2008] received an email from freelance journalist Ms. Rachel Wright. She wanted to do an eight-minute video on Auroville for NewsNight, the news and current affairs programme of BBC2 and for BBC World...
After the broadcast
After the film had been aired, the Working Committee issued a public statement on the Auroville website condemning the video as ‘an outrageous piece of tabloid journalism'. It was followed by a detailed additional statement on the many distortions in the video. The Chairman of the Governing Board and the members of the International Advisory Council of the Auroville Foundation too sent letters of protest to the BBC, as did scores of people from all over the world, expressing their strong disapproval. “My belief in the BBC as a reliable source of news and information has been shattered, and I will now question the accuracy of future reports,” wrote many people, and asked for a public apology.
Mr. Barron, meanwhile, has more or less standardised his answers to these complaints, stating that “Rachel Wright approached this subject with proper journalistic rigour and the project complied with the BBC's editorial guidelines of fairness and balance” and that he was confident that “the BBC approached the story in good faith and presented a fair and balanced report about this important issue.” It is obvious that neither he, nor Ms. Wright, wanted to be convinced that the BBC failed to broadcast an honest, well-researched and impartial documentary. The many objections notwithstanding, the BBC proceeded to broadcast the video twice on BBC World Service.
As can be expected, local authorities visited Auroville soon after the broadcast. High-level officers of the police and Immigration Office were concerned, for if Auroville was indeed a place where paedophiles could indulge in criminal behaviour, how was it that they were unaware of it?
The Working Committee informed the Foreign Regional Registration Officer about the cases Auroville had been dealing with in the last 15 years: 3 Aurovilians had been asked to leave on the basis of suspected (but never proven) paedophile involvement; one Newcomer was found guilty and had his probationary status ended and the authorities were informed; one guest was found guilty, sent out, and the local authorities were informed; and the attention of the police had been drawn to two persons who were roaming the area and had been bothering minors. Auroville explained that a large number of guesthouses and home stays have come up around Auroville – the Repos community on the beach alone is surrounded by 163 (!) small guesthouses – and that Auroville cannot be held responsible for what happens there.
The question ‘why' Ms. Wright decided to relate child abuse to Auroville remains as yet unanswered. Child abuse, according to a report in the daily newspaper The Hindu, of December 26, 2007, is rampant in Chennai. According to a survey conducted in 2007 by the Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, more than 40 per cent of the children in Chennai from all social strata report various forms of sexual abuse. Rumour has it that paedophilia also thrives in the tourist town of Mahabalipuram . Why did she concentrate on Auroville?
“I think she was out for a scoop,” says Mauna. “Child abuse is a problem found everywhere in the world, including India . Ms. Wright tried to connect it to Auroville to show we allow it to happen and do not act against it; and in the process to denigrate Auroville's ideals and good name. She dismisses The Mother as ‘a French woman'; she falsely states in the transcript that Auroville strives for Vatican status; she lies that Aurovilians don't pay tax; she misinforms that Auroville has no money, no rules and no leaders; and she portrays Aurovilians as arrogant Westerners who repress the poor local population and take undue advantage of them which is another falsity – for only 60% of Auroville's population are foreigners. And if she would have compared the lives of people who have been associated with Auroville since the beginning with those of people outside our geographical area, she would have found how much Auroville has done for the surrounding villages.”
OutreachMedia's views are corroborated by the fact that the video shows five so-called witnesses, four of whom seem to bear a grudge against Auroville.
Two of them cannot be identified as their faces have been blackened in the video. But one of them, an anonymous villager, states an absurdity. In the transcript sent to the Working Committee he mentions, speaking about New Creation School , that “one in five children are currently being abused”. This allegation was removed from the video after the Working Committee commented to the BBC that no parent would send their child to a school with such a track record. (Strangely, the remark was not removed from the BBC radio programme.) Yet, this same witness was still allowed to say that “men come in and ask them [the children] to stay after school and then have sex with them.”
The BBC obviously agreed that the first part of this witness' statement was patent nonsense and hence removed it – but why did it still broadcast the second part, when the witness's unreliability had already been confirmed? And why was this statement not followed up with the interview given by the principal of the school?
The Working Committee asked for the names of these two witnesses. The BBC replied that they could not be given, but that they would inform them about Auroville's interest to talk to them. From the fact that the two have never contacted Auroville or any Indian authority can be deduced that their testimony was probably false.
Another questionable ‘witness report' comes from Mr. Ram Kumar Raj, who states in the video that “the sexual abuse issue has to be taken seriously by Auroville – they should scrutinize people coming here and say if you are coming we will be watching you ...”.
This statement was preceded by Ms. Wright saying, “Local charities however, are reacting to the problem. This man teaches local children how to deal with unwanted advances from predatory adults. He has seen the nature of Auroville's members change over the years.”
This introduction has proven to be a clear innuendo. Mr. Raj, who works for the Pondicherry Multipurpose Social Service Society (PMSSS) in the area of child abuse prevention, clarified to a member of the Working Committee “I made a general statement which applies to any organisation. Neither the PMSSS nor any other charitable organization I know considers Auroville to be a ‘problem'.” The PMSSS, he clarified, also does not teach self-defence classes against ‘predatory adults from Auroville'. “I have a lot of respect for the work the Aurovilians are doing for the uplift of the surrounding villages,” he said.
A third dubious ‘witness' is Mr. Raj Batra, a person who stayed as a guest in Auroville for 2 years before his guest status was cancelled and he was asked to leave on account of making misrepresentations about his nationality, and because of complaints by residents of an Auroville community about his anti-social and destructive behaviour while living there. He therefore obviously has a grudge against Auroville.
Another ambiguous witness is Mr. Nandhivarman, the ‘local politician' from Pondicherry , who is most probably the person who made the ludicrous statement, mentioned in Ms. Wright's first email, that “because of Auroville, Pondicherry is becoming the brothel of South India ”. Mr. Nandhivarman hosts many websites. A posting on one of them, dated April 9, 2008, is called “My fight against Auroville soon in Televisions Options.” In it, he refers to Sri Aurobindo as ‘a failed godman' and to The Mother as ‘a Frenchwoman … who found the key to death but is now dead – perhaps she had lost that key.'
Auroville doesn't escape his ire either. “There exists a so-called international city, a dream of the Late Mira Richard, known as Mother of Aurobindo Ashram. That can be said to be the story of deceit. Right from the beginning their aim is to establish a Vatican type of autonomous state.” Nandhivarman continues to lambast Auroville for its lack of leadership and aspiration for Divine anarchy, which he sees as an attempt at creating a lawless society which is against the laws of the land. His website shows many similar curious statements, which makes one question his rationality.
But Ms. Wright doesn't seem to have been subject to such questioning. Many of the statements she makes in the video can be traced back to this particular website. The words ‘ Vatican status', which appeared in the transcript (though edited out in the video); the insolent reference to The Mother; the reference to Divine Anarchy – it's all there. In another attempt to tarnish the image of Auroville she talks in the video about new people being ‘inducted' to Auroville. In the original transcript, the word used was ‘initiation' – it was corrected by Auroville into ‘probationary period' but deliberately not used, to create the impression, as one of Auroville's supporters wrote, that “Viewers who do not know Auroville, upon watching the documentary, may be led to think ‘Ah, here again is one of those weird sects, deluded by some ideal or the other, but only living in dissolution and perversion'.”
Internal website quotation
The journalist states that one ‘disgruntled' Aurovilian – reasons not given – gave her access to Auroville's internal website. She then shows two texts. In the first almost five-year old posting an Aurovilian voiced concern about the possibility of sexual abuse and proposed that Auroville has clear laws about sexual offence. The second text that runs ‘visa has been cancelled' was taken from a security report of 2008 which relates to a mentally unstable person who was neither a guest nor an Aurovilian, and who was seen wandering in the Auroville area.
The journalist takes the existence of these postings as proof of the existence of sexual abuse, instead of what they show: a community being vigilant to ensure the safety of all people in the area.
Lack of honesty
“Ms. Wright wasn't honest when she gave us the reasons for wanting to film in Auroville. There was a pre-planned agenda,” says OutreachMedia. “Her contacts with her so-called witnesses were pre-booked, for it is not possible that in the course of 3 days in Auroville she would have found all five of them. There may have never been an intention to do a film on Auroville – the intention was to find a scoop on the currently best-selling theme of paedophilia, while at the same time denigrating Auroville and the Aurovilians.”
The Working Committee is now lodging a formal complaint with the BBC, as the BBC has done great harm to Auroville's reputation and is insulting the Community. Yet, one Aurovilian commented otherwise. “I didn't find the piece particularly well conceived nor convincing in its scandal-mongering – not for any reasonably intelligent viewer, anyway. It seems more damaging to the credibility of the BBC than to that of Auroville.”