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Don't expel US historian, govt told

Government won't extend Peter Heehs' visa; colleagues say reason is extremists' objection to book on freedom fighter and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. Gautam Chikermane reports. A history of differences

delhi Updated: Mar 31, 2012 12:05 IST
Gautam Chikermane

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..."http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2012/3/31_03_12-metro10.jpg

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.