After spending 41 years in India as part of a team that digitised and archived the works of freedom fighter and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, American historian Peter Heehs has been abruptly told by the Regional Registration Office at Puducherry that his visa will not be extended anymore.
The ostensible reason for the non-extension of Heehs's visa, according to sources, is his ninth book, 'The Lives of Sri Aurobindo'. For years, a handful of religious fundamentalists have been harassing Heehs over his treatment of Sri Aurobindo's relationship with his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Richard, better known as The Mother.
"Should I have to leave India, I am confident that I will be back shortly," Heehs, an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, said.
Proponents of democratic values and free speech raised their concerns over the issue. "Factional disagreements in Mr Heehs' hometown should not receive the implicit support of the Indian state," a March 30 letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and home minister P Chidambaram from prominent historians, including Romilla Thapar and Ramachandra Guha, said. "It would be greatly to the detriment of our country to be seen as having driven out an internationally recognised scholar..."
In their letter, the historians quoted a March 29 letter by minister of rural development Jairam Ramesh to Chidambaram. "I am very well aware that his book has angered some people in Puducherry," Ramesh's letter states. "But are we not a democracy where different points of view can be expressed?"
Based on select excerpts of the book presented by a small group of religious fundamentalists - and without actually reading it - a February 13, 2009 report of the Orissa government's IG Police Intelligence said it "appears to be blasphemous".
Two months later, Orissa banned the book on that basis.
Sri Aurobindo was not a religious personality, and his teachings did not amount to being a religion - this was a fact underlined by the Supreme Court in its November 8, 1982 judgment. However, if Heehs's visa is not extended, the book will have to fight for its life in the Orissa high court - without its author.
— Gautam Chikermane
Addendum: The question about the relationship between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is only one of dozens of objections raised by that handful of religious fundamentalists; it is not even mentioned in the Orissa Gazette Notification. It is, however, what appears to produce the most visceral effect in the public, for reasons we fail to understand. Heehs made it perfectly clear that there was no sexual element at all in this relationship. On the contrary, what he wrote underscores its profoundly sacred nature. Only readers with a serious Freudian hang-up can fail to see this. Moreover, we are aware that Minister Jairam Ramesh has read and greatly appreciated The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. He has written Heehs privately about this and also mentioned it in his letter to the Home Minister. We regret that the writer of this otherwise excellent report did not quote from JR's letter the positive comments about the book, along with the lines relating to the larger issue of freedom of expression. — Editors, IYF.