The Delhi High Court today formed a committee under the supervision of retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi to monitor the welfare and protection of rights of women living in an ashram founded by self-styled spiritual preacher Virender Dev Dixit.

A Bench of Acting Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Navin Chawla which was hearing pleas concerning the state of affairs at the Adhyatmik Vidhyalaya in Rohini, said that the institution will be free to pursue its religious and spiritual practices, and the committee will ensure no woman inmate or child, if any, in the ashram is subjected to treatment that is in breach of their fundamental or legal rights.

The District Judge concerned will be the Committee's Chairperson and the local District Magistrate, the Deputy Commissioner of Police (crime against women cell), the district legal service authority's secretary, a nominee of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) and the woman and child development department's district officer will be its members, it ordered.

"The functioning of the committee shall be supervised by Kiran Bedi... The committee shall function to see and ensure that no woman inmate or child if any in respondent institution is subjected to any such treatment which may tantamount to breach of their fundamental or other legal right", the Bench said.

"At the same time, we make it clear that the institution shall be free to pursue its religious and spiritual practices provided none of them infringe any fundamental and other rights of any inmate or any other person", it said.

The Court had earlier expressed its shock over the management of the ashram which was housing several women who were stated to be living in animal-like condition.

It had opined that it should be taken over by the Delhi government and also sought a monthly report from the committee, and said the government shall provide the necessary assistance to facilitate its functioning.

Delhi government counsel Santosh Tripathi told the court that there was no mechanism available with the government to run a private institution and urged the court to form a committee to look after the affairs of the ashram in question. DCW chief Swati Maliwal said that the present case is the tip of the iceberg and there were many instances of malpractices being committed by spiritual leaders.

She asked the court to set up a similar committee for the entire city and placed before it certain suggestions to ensure that the fundamental and legal rights of women and children living in such institutions are not violated.

"We are of the view that a committee should be constituted so as to keep a close watch of the welfare of inmates of respondent no. 6 institution, who are all stated to be women above 18 years", the Court stated.

The Court directed the Delhi government to ensure compliance of the Women's and Children's Institution (Licencing) Act and asked it as well as the Centre to examine the suggestions made by the DCW.

It also said that the committee will have access to the institute, be given the record with respect to the inmates and may take assistance of medical professionals and other experts to make an assessment on the well-being of the inmates.

Earlier this month, the Court had asked the ashram to show cause as to why it should not be taken over by the Delhi government and said that it was difficult to accept that the inmates were living there of their free will. It had also said that while it cannot force the women living in the ashram under shocking conditions to live with their parents, no institution has the licence to conduct its affairs in a manner that violates fundamental rights of the inmates.

In December 2017, on a petition by NGO Foundation for Social Empowerment, the high court had asked the CBI to trace the founder of the ashram, Virender Dev Dixit, after raising doubts over the ashram's claims that women inmates there were not illegally confined.

Earlier, the court had directed the CBI to probe the alleged illegal confinement of girls and women in the ashram where it was claimed they were kept in "animal-like" conditions behind metal doors in a "fortress" surrounded by barbed wire.

The petitioner NGO had claimed that several minors and women were allegedly being illegally confined at the "spiritual university" and were not allowed to meet their parents.

Taking note, the High Court had immediately set up a committee, comprising lawyers and the DCW chief, to inspect the premises of the institute. The committee, comprising lawyers Ajay Verma and Nandita Rao, then gave a report detailing the "horrible" living conditions of the over 100 girls and women who were housed in "animal-like conditions with no privacy even for bathing."

The matter would be heard next on May 27.

With PTI inputs