Deccan Herald, by M R Venkatesh in Pondicherry, April 21 2012 23:39 IST:

“When you pick a rose, there are a few thorns,” sighs a soft-spoken, self-effacing resident at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram here, as an aesthetically done pathway leads you to a rectangular courtyard where the bodies of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have been laid to rest.

Ramachandra Guha, the author of the following article, which was published in The Telegraph on July 30, 2011, is one of India's best known historians:

Posted at Hindustan Blogs by Gautam Chikermane on February 22, 2012:


We banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and provided the moral justification for a barbaric fatwa on his head by Iran’s then spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As a result, Rushdie had to take refuge in the UK. Last month, we prevented him from coming to India and speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival, hammering one more nail in the coffin of free speech in India. In case you wish to read it, the book is available here in PDF form, freely downloadable.

We drove MF Husain, India’s best-known painter, out of India. For his paintings of Hindu goddesses, Husain faced eight cases in various courts of the country — all were dismissed in an April 2004 judgement by the Delhi High Court — his house was attacked by Bajrang Dal activists in 1998, his art vandalised. The Muslims found a quawalli in his film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities blasphemous and he had to withdraw the film in 2004. Husain had to flee to Qatar, become a Qatari national and died a non-Indian.

And now, right under our noses, even as the national discourse is moving against banning books and towards free speech, another intellectual is being hounded. This time, it’s Peter Heehs, an American historian, who has who has lived in and served the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for 41 years, set up the Ashram’s Archives department, has been the founding editor of Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research, and was part of the team that has brought out the Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. The ban in question is on his scholarly biography of Sri Aurobindo titled, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo.

The Economic Times, from an interview of Peter Heehs by Ullekh NP, Updated: Apr 20, 2012, 02.18 AM IST:


PH: If there was any problem, it was caused by people with no legitimate interest in the matter. I am well aware of their motivations and their designs with regard to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I was just a pawn in their game, so to speak.

Q: What did you want to highlight in the book that the so-called conservatives have found objectionable?

PH: My aim was to show all aspects of Sri Aurobindo's life. The "so-called conservatives" are interested in establishing a Sri Aurobindo religion with themselves as popes, priests, etc. I made it clear in my book that the yoga and philosophy of Sri Aurobindo is not a religion. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa, Aurobindo's spiritual collaborator) made this perfectly clear in their writings and the Supreme Court of India affirmed it in a judgment of 1982 after a certain organisation claiming to represent Sri Aurobindo tried to obtain religious status and protections. Its suit was thrown out.

Q: Do you think the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry has fallen into the hands of a few?

PH: No, though a few are mounting a strong challenge to the legitimate authorities in order to advance their own agendas.

Q: Do you think it needs to be more transparent about its functioning?

PH: As far as I know, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is quite transparent. Its books are independently audited and I don't believe that any irregularities have been noted... The problem is that "the few" referred to above, because they are not able to get their way, put forward frivolous complaints about the workings of the trust, going so far as to challenge the Trust deed written by the Mother. Their reasons for doing this are clear to most people in the Ashram.

From an article in The Daily Mail by M.C. Rajan, published 14 April 2012:

"Figures such as Aurobindo do not need a selfappointed priesthood to defend themselves from the profane."

From an article in The Hindu of more or less the same date: 

"I am looking forward to being forgotten," remarked American historian Peter Heehs, as he spoke about the media attention that followed the extension of his visa on Friday by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in New Delhi.

Title of an article in The Times of India by Bosco Dominique, Apr 15, 2012:

"I was targeted for showing Aurobindo’s human side."

From an article at IBNLive of more or less the same date:

Reacting to his visa extension, controversial US historian Peter Heehs has thanked the Home Ministry.... In a statement, Heehs said, "I'm grateful to the Home Ministry for reviewing my case, and for arriving at a decision that shows that the government values freedom of expression."


The Indian Express, Apr 14 2012:

After much deliberation, the government has finally decided to let American historian Peter Heehs — the author of a controversial biography of Sri Aurobindo — to continue to stay in India and extended his visa by one year.

Home Minister P Chidambaram approved the one-year extension to Heehs’ visa Thursday evening and an order in this regard was issued Friday morning, Home Ministry sources said. The Home Ministry’s decision overrules the decision of the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) of Puducherry which had turned down Heehs’s request for an extension of his visa.

Heehs, a chronicler of modern Indian history, has been living in Puducherry for nearly 40 years, mostly in the Aurobindo ashram. His 2008 book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published by the Columbia University Press, has run into trouble with a section of people claiming to be followers of Sri Aurobindo demanding that he be deported.

But a number of prominent scholars had come out in support of Heehs and defended his scholarly work on Sri Aurobindo.... The book is currently not available in India because of an injunction on its sale granted by the Orissa High Court on a petition filed by those protesting against the book.

The Times of India, Apr 14, 2012:

Government on Friday extended the visa of controversial US historian Peter Heehs for one year, ignoring calls to deny him continued residence after some groups objected to his portrayal of Sri Aurobindo.

Heehs has been informed about the extension that will allow him to stay in India till April 15, 2013. Several prominent authors, intellectuals and academics had protested the move to deny him an extension on his visa.

The case reached the desk of Union home minister P Chidambaram last month, when Heehs' request was rejected by the local Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Puducherry in the wake of a number of complaints against him.

The decision was seen as discriminatory and uncalled for as Heehs has spent over four decades in India as part of a team that archived works of Sri Aurobindo and authored several books on the spiritual leader.

It is learnt that since the author has already booked his ticket for traveling out pending his visa extension application, he would probably leave for sometime and then return.

"There is no restriction on him nor on his stay till his visa expires on April 15, 2013. Heehs is even eligible to apply for his visa extension again next year," said an official. The government would hope that the attention around Heehs would have subsided by the time he returns to India.

Heehs, whose visa was to expire on April 15, had applied for extension of his travel document before the Puducherry FRRO. The matter was subsequently referred to the home ministry's foreigners division which takes final view on such matters.

Besides, a number of petitions - both in favour and against his visa extension - had also been sent to Chidambaram, who took the view in favour of the US author in consultation with officers concerned and the existing law.

"There was nothing against the author which could deny him visa extension as per the existing law in India", said the official...

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writing at The Indian Express on Apr 12 2012:


Crossfire over Heehs’s work says much about our public culture of readership

India’s visa policy for scholars has long been a scandal unworthy of a liberal democracy. But the public culture of readership is even more disconcerting. Indian democracy now has to be defended book by book.

The crossfire over legalities and free speech is obscuring a deeper point. Why is our public culture so hostile to arguments that display the slightest degree of sophistication? Why do we not want to look at any argument that nudges us out of our comfort zones? Peter Heehs’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is a good case study for these questions. It is a historically adroit and intellectually acute work of scholarship. It goes without saying that an author’s rights must not be dependent on whether the book is a worthy one. But it should be disturbing that serious works can be so easily maligned. The tactics used reflect a wider culture of readership that does not bode well for a liberal culture: reduce complex arguments to sound bites, quote out of context and absolutely refuse to countenance any arguments that might actually elevate us. Those who attack Heehs are unwittingly revealing how little they understand Aurobindo. But they are also exhibiting symptoms of a wider cultural crisis.

From The Times of India, Apr 10, 2012:


The pattern's become depressingly familiar - a writer presents new views on a historical figure. A group with some affiliation to this figure, ethnic, devotional or political, takes offence. Protests lead to personalised attacks laced with shrill intolerance, court cases mushrooming against the writer and heavy-handed state action, like disallowing him to enter a location - or pushing him to leave. This pattern's reloading again in the furore over American historian Peter Heehs's book exploring Sri Aurobindo's life. Followers of Sri Aurobindo are apparently upset over Heehs's alleged probing of the leader's mental history or his relationship with his disciple, the Mother. But their discontent hasn't stopped there. Heehs, himself a resident of Puducherry's Auroville Ashram for 40 years, finds himself facing court cases - and a current refusal to renew his Indian visa. 

In recent years, Indian intolerance to differing perspectives on remarkable figures strewn generously across our history has been growing. The reaction to American writer Joseph Lelyveld's 2011 book on Gandhi - angry protests, calls for a ban - is fresh in memory. Writers of fiction haven't escaped either. Taslima Nasreen's autobiography was banned in West Bengal by the Left - two years elapsing till this was revoked - while Salman Rushdie was unable to attend a literature festival in 2012 due to a novel from 1988. With one group arbitrarily arrogating to itself decisions on the 'limits' of artistic or scholarly freedom, the state often aligned, India is showing itself to be an increasingly insecure nation, unable to debate or discuss maturely. For the argumentative Indian, this choking-off of provocative discourse is a huge loss - and a disservice to those whose names we claim to thus protect.

Gopu Mohan writing for The Indian Express, Chennai, Apr 09 2012:


In the early 1970s, when the world was discovering Indian spirituality, a young man from Chicago set out to gather the education necessary to understand the abstract ideas of Sri Aurobindo better.

Peter Heehs reached the Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry in 1971.

Forty years on, Heehs is among the most acclaimed experts on Aurobindo. Yet he has been made to feel unwelcome for having come up with what is arguably the most thorough biography of the spiritual philosopher.

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is at the centre of a controversy after a section of devotees objected to some of its portions. Their opposition has made him stay away from the archives department of the ashram, which he has been part of right from the early days, and has threatened the renewal of his visa, which has been pending for the past few years.

Heehs claims the controversy was manufactured by a minority, who have culled certain portions from the book and distributed it among the devotees to create the wrong impression. “They have de-contextualised portions of the book and presented it to the devotees with the insinuation that I was purposely offending. They have taken pains to type out those portions and distributed them as a computer file, because in a photocopy there is an option to question and find out what is said before and after the particular section of text,” he said.

Gautam Chikermane writing in the Hindustan Times:

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.

IBN LIVE: Face the Nation—Are historians losing their freedom of expression? Watch it on YouTube

Once again a book has been banned. This time the author is American historian Peter Heehs for his book 'The lives Of Sri Aurobindo'.

Tweet by moderator Sagarika Ghose: "Every fact scrupulously footnoted, every assertion researched, Heehs book is the product of a lifetime's work..breathtaking"

IBN Live: Sri Aurobindo was a spiritual leader, not an avatar: Peter Heehs. Watch it on YouTube:

American historian Peter Heehs, whose book 'The Lives of Sri Aurobindo' has sparked protests, says powerful people are pressurizing the government not to renew his visa.

(The headline is a journalistic casualty. During this interview Peter never denied that Sri Aurobindo was an avatar. — Editors)


The Times of India, Apr 1, 2012:

"Mr Heehs' biography of Sri Aurobindo, justifiably commended by Shri Jairam Ramesh (as well as by scholars around the world), is among the finest ever written of a major Indian nationalist and spiritualist.


The Hindu
March 31, 2012


"Will review historian's visa cancellation issue"

Deccan Herald
March 31, 2012


Cancellation of historian's visa to be reviewed: Chidambaram

The Economic Times
March 31, 2012


Cancellation of US historian Peter Heehs's visa to be reviewed: P Chidambaram

...For years, religious fundamentalists have been harassing Heehs over his non-hagiographic and more academic treatment of Sri Aurobindo's well-received biography.

"I understand that the FRO has passed the order," Chidambaram said. "I have asked for a review. I am told that the file will be submitted to me on Monday, I will take a decision then."

The FRO, who signs as Aruna, could not be contacted. Repeated calls and SMSes to joint secretary (foreigners) GVV Sarma too went unanswered.

"I am very grateful to the home minister for consenting to review my case," Heehs said.

On Friday, 30 intellectuals - including historian Romila Thapar, academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta and poet and literary critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra - had petitioned the PM and Chidambaram, asking them to review the decision....

Former Karnataka governor and ex-home secretary TN Chaturvedi added his voice of support. "I do hope that Heehs is not hounded out like this."...

The Indian Express
April 03, 2012


PC seeks review of decision on historian’s visa

April 02, 2012


Historian faces expulsion: Are we an intolerant democracy?

After a furore over his controversial biography on spiritual leader and nationalist Sri Aurobindo, well-known American historian Peter Heehs faces the prospect of being asked to leave India. Even as the government mulls the extension of his visa, we debate if this incident is yet another example of a serious threat to the freedom of speech and expression in the country.