|Esther Friede in traditional Indian attire at her Ashram in the 80s.
Born to a simple middle class Jewish family Esther’s love for spirituality and the beauty of the country led her to India and devote her love to build up an ashram. She had no inkling however, that her devotion would be tested decades later as she gets embroiled in murky political affairs to save that very ashram.
Esther left for India from her native home in Toronto in 1965, following in the footsteps of her Guru Swami Devananda, whom she had met at a college lecture. She was immediately taken in to his teachings and philosophy and decided to help him set up an Ashram in India. “There are certain feelings, interests and attractions that come from deep within. Since I was a child and before I could do anything independently from my parents, I had an attraction to India, Indian things, Indian philosophy, Indian dress, long before it became popular in the west. ” says Esther
|Esther with the then Indian PM Mrs. Indira Gandhi
Despite her parent’s vehement protests, she went on to stay in India, and kept coming back and forth. At that time Esther and her Canadian friend Margaret Annie Sosney helped Swami Devananda and ably assisted him with the setting up of the Ashram. The 1971 India-Pakistan 17-day war that saw the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh was the time that Esther arrived in India for the setting up of the Ashram. The announcement of the beginning of the war came as they were in mid-flight and for a while the Ashram dream did seem difficult but with the help of some willing people including the then Pm. Smt. Indira Gandhi, the Sri Swami Devanandaji Bharat Bhakti Yoga Ashram was formally established in Haridwar in 1972. It is also been a registered society under the Indian Societies Registration Act of 1860 since 1974.
After years of hardships Esther with her Guru and other willing Canadian members of the society, developed and maintained the ashram, which organized a literacy program for children. The idea of the literacy program was to offer basic literacy and numeracy for a few hours a day for girls who did not attend regular schools. In the literacy program, everything was free. Classes went up to grade 6 standard. The children were given uniforms and provided milk and food. In 1976, Mr. and Mrs. Leishman, the other members of the Canadian society came from Canada to settle at the ashram in India to look after the affairs of the ashram and maintain its literacy program, which they later named Prod Shiksha Kendra. After 12 long years of service they finally decided to retire and had to look for some other able person to look after the affairs of the Ashram.
In between all this Esther had to take care of her professional life as well. She went on to complete her university studies later in life, earning her Masters in Psychology while she was working for MNCs in the IT industry .She eventually established herself as a psychotherapist at Multifaith Spiritual and Religious Coordinator in Canada. Though she says, she did lose her interest in India, but it was her love and dedication for her Guru, who passed away in 2000, that made her build the Ashram affectionately. However murkier things were taking place there without her knowledge.
It was because of her frequent travels and non-availability in the ashram that the problem started. A particular manager whom the Ashram had entrusted the managerial duties in the late 80s allegedly used the ashram for his own greed. As Esther explains, “Migrant labourers were given places to set up their tents for fees that were also pocketed. The Ashram rooms were rented to people and the rent collected was not reported. The school suffered due to constant neglect and would have closed doors if it were not for the dedication of the two teachers who were determined to carry it on. The milk from the gaushala( cowshed) of the ashram too was being sold instead of being given to children.” In 2005, she got an anonymous phone call from India saying if they wanted to save their land, they should come immediately. “So, when I arrived, I found out that he had been visiting the registry office trying to claim ``squatter`s rights`` of the land, saying he(the manager) was living here and farming the land and it should be his. “ claims Esther. After some discussions and disagreements with the Ashram members the manager who was allegedly involved in the scheme of things was finally fired from the Ashram.
That however, was only the beginning of the problems.
The manager immediately went into cahoots with the land mafia and the case erupted to dangerous proportions. A supposedly powerful criminal with quite a few criminal records against his name is now posing as the secretary of the society and submitted 35 years of documents in an application to renew the society registration. In his documents, he claims to have account statements and meeting minutes in which all the original members of the society resigned. Hearing of this, last year Esther paid a visit to the office of the Sub-registrar of Societies and presented him with evidence, in person, that these documents were a fraud, stating that she had never resigned. The claims over the ashram are now dragging in court. The manager along with his partners has recently filed 3 court suits against the Ashram people.
Esther in turn has hired a local lawyer in her defense in civil court. She also hired a lawyer for the Nainital High Court who has filed a writ petition against the Deputy Registrar, Firms, Societies and Chits of Haridwar, the Registrar of Firms, Societies and Chits, Dehra Dun. She has also lodged FIRs against the members of the land mafia whose names are known and the former manager who she claims passed along all their information to the land mafia for 420, 467, 468, 471, 452, 504, 506 and 341 IPC (Indian Penal Code) in the local Haridwar police station and hired a lawyer to conduct the criminal cases.
“I have ample evidence in pictures, correspondence, financial bank statements, copies of wire transfers of funds, and cancelled cheques. There is no shred of evidence that anything they have presented to the registrar’s office has a basis in reality.” says Esther confidently.
She has even been receiving regular death threats, but that does not deter her from her cause, i.e. the rightful protection of the Ashram. Nearing her 70s Esther might be physically weak, but her determination to fight till the end still remains as robust as ever.
So what drives her? “This is a sacred site for me as it is my guru`s ashram. It is also where I spent my formative early adulthood with my guru, so I think there is a lot of sentiment. I also don`t like to give up on a dream so there is the feeling of perpetual hope against odds.” she says a touch emotionally. She goes on to add in a somewhat determined tone, “I am motivated by the idea of fighting for what is right and exposing corruption. I would, if it is possible, like to make the land mafia schemes so public that they will back off. I am hoping that they will give up but if they don`t give up voluntarily, they will be forced to back away by other means. I almost feel like what is happening here is a microcosm of what is going on all over India. I don`t understand how India can let this kind of thing run rampant without punishing the people involved in this racket and those who collude with it .”
All this negativity does bring in frustration and at times she does want to quit but what keeps her going as she proclaims is “to stand up against what I consider to be adharma” ..
Friends and family get concerned for her and then like a close friend of hers says, “ I call her and tell her many a times , you can`t change India – it is what it is – just get out or go take a trip somewhere that you will enjoy – enjoy the good parts of India” . There are others too who warn her of the inherent danger, but Esther would rather die than just give up.
She could have easily packed of her bags and lived a peaceful existence in her own country. But she wasn’t willing to risk the children in the ashram get embroiled in the imbroglio. As she says there is lots to be done still with the development of the ashram and the children who need their services. She cannot stay away from the place of her guru and the land where she attained all her spirituality.
There is a lot than can be learned from a person like Esther Friede. A person who has no roots in India, and yet is fighting for her place in a way a mother protects her child.
Esther’s story can perhaps be best summed in her parting words, “What is true and good must be fought for – one can`t expect it to prevail if one is not ready to stand up for it. We don`t lead a spiritual life just to meditate and see the Light within. We need to uphold the Light for all of society by doing what we are called to do in our own life.”
(I came into contact with Esther via my journalist friend Sumantra Maitra . You can read his take on the story here. )
(To read my latest interview with Esther, please click here.)