Auroville, 50 years on: Story behind India’s ‘utopia’ ignores the contribution, oppression of Tamil locals
Historian Jessica Namakkal presents a side of the Auroville story that has been systematically erased – that of the contribution of the Tamil locals to building the township.
In botany, certain types of plants are classified as being ‘pioneering’ species. These species, such as the Australian acacias, are valued because though they are foreign, their presence promotes the growth of other plants. It is said the Australian acacias are found in abundance in Auroville.
There exists another classification of foreign plants – ‘invasive alien’ species, such as the lantana. People are discouraged from planting and growing them, because they are a threat to biodiversity, damage soil and encroach on agricultural land.
50 years after the idea for it was first conceived, Auroville is viewed as being a utopia by both tourists visiting the township and people who want to settle there. Those who worked towards setting it up in the initial stages are credited with creating an entire forest on barren land. Its innovative architecture, use of renewable energy and agricultural reforms are oft-discussed as being potential models which can be replicated elsewhere in India, if not outside the country. Many visitors have noted that the temperature in the region is three degrees lower than the surrounding areas in Tamil Nadu, and that the air is visibly cleaner.
But perhaps the township’s most enduring and discussed aspects are the brand of spirituality practiced by its inhabitants, as well as its reputation of being a self-sustaining community. People in Auroville are expected to work not for money, but for ' maintenance '. The narrative around Auroville continues to focus on these aspects, as a newly released Buzzfeed ‘Follow This’ documentary titled India’s Utopia shows; stories of settlers’ success with regards to agriculture and energy are interspersed with shots of the lush greenery and the Matrimandir — the golden globe-like structure that many typically associate with the township.
Historian Jessica Namakkal, assistant professor at Duke University, presents a side of the Auroville story that has been systematically erased – that of the contribution of the Tamil locals to building the township. In her paper ‘European Dreams, Tamil Land: Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia’, she examines the idea of capitalist neocolonialism, the interactions between the settlers and locals, and the conception of Aurvoville as a utopia. She further expands on these ideas in this conversation with Firstpost.
The initial years of the township were filled with uncertainty for both the original inhabitants as well as the people who had come to settle there. These settlers had come for a variety of reasons, ranging from seeking adventure to being compelled by the teachings of Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa (The Mother), to the view that they could experiment with spirituality and socialism.
Upon arriving, they soon realised that they had have to set up the infrastructure of the township, as well as take care of their daily needs, Jessica says. “While the Mother taught a philosophy of spiritual enlightenment through work, it soon became apparent to the settlers that they could hire local Tamilians, most of whom were farmers and fisher-people, to do the labor for them for very cheap, especially because they came with foreign currencies that outweighed the Indian Rupee,” Jessica observes.
The result was that the white settlers and some non-local Indians assumed managerial roles whilst outsourcing labour to build a utopian community – a community that would not be accepting of these very labourers. “The newcomers rarely learned Tamil (though some did, after a time), and did not work to include the local population in their spiritual practice. They did, however, plan to include local people in their educational missions and health clinics. This resembles colonial systems that claimed power by controlling education, health, and industry while doling it out to laborers as an act of goodwill or charity,” Jessica explains.
What is also often glossed over is the question of acquisition of property from the Tamil locals. Jessica says that if one visits the neighbouring regions, one hears stories about how the inhabitants sold their land at cheap prices to pay off loans, finance weddings etc. Many of them are now landless and working for the Aurovillians.
Central to the understanding of this township is its perception of being a utopia, as well as its geographical location. “Working towards a utopia necessitates either moving to an uninhabited place that can serve as the foundation for something new or destroying the systems of control and oppression that already exist in the current place. Sometimes this happens within states, while sometimes utopian movements work towards destroying states. Auroville is, in some ways, an interesting mixture, as they are firmly based in India, but imagine themselves as ‘global citizens’,” says Jessica. This, she adds, tends to erase the inequalities of a community, since some may be able to afford passports that allow them to travel the world, while others may be held back by their financial situation, identity etc.
But Auroville is not composed merely of foreigners; Europeans, North Americans, some South Americans and Indians settled here. In the beginning, these Indians were not the original inhabitants of the region; they were from Bengal and the north of the country, and therefore linguistically and culturally distinct (more locals may have become part of the township now). “For both groups [Indians and non-Indians], viewing the Tamil land as barren and uninhabited can be understood through a settler colonial mentality, a move of both internal and external colonisation,” Jessica says.
India’s reputation as a land that is ‘spiritually evolved’ also comes into play here. “The question of exoticisation of India as a spiritual land has certainly played a role in bringing people to Auroville and is also important in the success of the many cottage industries (artisan incense, soap, paper, clothes, books) that are based today in Auroville, and marketed and sold worldwide,” Jessica explains.
Is the contribution of the locals being systematically erased to uphold and maintain the myth that Auroville is self-sufficient? Jessica says the answer to this question lies in understanding how this vision is beneficial to the settlers. “The myth that they arrived to bring life to a dead, barren land is important in distancing themselves from the idea of settlement. To be linked to settlement would link them to colonialism, which is not a desirable story for Auroville,” she says.
It is telling that many of us urban Indians relate better to the Aurovillians than to the locals in the region, in terms of the positive changes they have affected – a far cry from many parts of India that continue to struggle with pollution and self-sustenance issues. Jessica attributes this to class solidarity. “Although this deserves a more complex answer, the main reason is class solidarity. A cosmopolitan, educated Indian journalist is likely to have more in common with an Aurovillian who runs an organic farm or is a fashion designer than a Tamil farmer or laborer,” she opines.
Jessica says it is not surprising that capitalism is an inevitable part of a system such as that of Auroville, which drew from the labour of the original inhabitants. She describes the current model as being ‘green capitalism’: Small industries that market themselves as organic, fair trade, and ethical. “They suggest that they treat the workers ethically, and focus on, for instance, teaching ‘uneducated’ village women to make baskets and containers out of trash. Meanwhile, most (if not all) of these small companies have discouraged or forbidden the formation of unions by laborers.”
With regards to the cashless economy, she says that it is available only to those who can be residents of the township, thus leaving out the labourers, who are almost all entirely outside of it. “You have a system of cottage industries in post-colonial India managed by non-local people who employ local labor. This is perhaps not too different from multi-national corporations that operate in India, such as Coca-Cola or Nestlé, but is marketed as being the ethical choice,” she explains.
Jessica says that Mirra Alfassa’s brand of anti-colonialism is similar to contemporary liberalism. “It claims to be in favor of equality for all people, but fails to recognise structural inequality that continues to shape how people are treated within a society. Alfassa often stated that she did not engage in politics, but both she and Aurobindo were in Pondicherry because it was a French colonial territory. Whether or not she truly was a critic of the French Empire, the non-French people in Pondicherry believed that the Ashram was given special treatment by the French colonial government because of Alfassa,” she explains, adding that though Alfassa stated that she was for independent India, she still benefitted from her French affiliation. It is not possible for Alfassa to be truly anti-colonial, says Jessica, because she was unwilling to see herself and her actions as part of the larger context of the machinations of imperial expansion and eventually decolonisation. “Alfassa brought more white settlement into India, she did not advocate for the abolition of it,” she says.
As an outsider to both the township and to the ideology that guides its workings, what strikes one immediately about this aspect of its history is that it is in direct opposition to Mirra Alfassa’s belief that Indian peasants were "closer to the divine" than European thinkers. Jessica regards this view as being infantilising. “The Mother liked to say this as a way to note her humility in the shadow of what she saw as a spirituality that lived deep in the soil in India. The suggestion is that while Europeans had to work at enlightenment, an 'Indian peasant' was infused with mystical knowledge. This is a classic colonial trope of seeing indigenous peasants as wise in spirituality, but unable to participate in the 'rational world' of politics, science, and governing. It validates already held beliefs that there is a biological difference between the Indian peasant and the European thinker,” she says.
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