The book on Sri Aurobindo was written for an academic audience, says author

“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.

Mr. Heehs, biographer of Sri Aurobindo, expressed gratitude to the Indian government for granting him the extension and said the fact that many scholars and eminent people had taken his side showed that the people of India respected the right to freedom of expression.

“Routine matter”

Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Heehs said that on the surface of things, it was a “routine matter” that all foreigners went through but in his case it went all the way up to the Union Home Minister before it could be approved.

Mr. Heehs got his visa stamped at 11a.m. on Friday at the Regional Registration Office in Puducherry. The FRRO has granted him an extension of visa until April 15, 2013. He is also eligible to apply for a further extension next year, he said.

The FRRO had earlier decided not to extend his visa beyond April 15, following complaints from devotees and followers of Sri Aurobindo about the contents of his book, The Many Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published by the Columbia University Press in 2008.

The decision was revised after an appeal by several scholars. Home Minister P. Chidambaram had earlier announced that he would review the case suo motu.

If there was any problem, it was because people who had no stake in the matter had taken an interest in the issue of his visa extension. The only people who should have been involved were himself, the trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram — as they are his sponsors — and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Mr. Heehs said.

Speaking about the book and the controversy over certain passages in it, he said he was sorry for offending the devotees of the ashram but the book was written for an academic audience and initially only meant for consumption in the U.S. He had not intended the book to have an ashram audience and said he would have changed things around if he was writing for them, he said.

The scholarly audience he was catering to had welcomed the different approach to looking at Sri Aurobindo, instead of reading an “ashram souvenir” and appreciated the arguments he had offered. In fact, he had even been criticised for being an “obvious acolyte” for his extremely positive views of Sri Aurobindo, he said.

“Decontextualised”

The main problem was that many of the protesters had not even read the book since it was not available in the country. Their opinion on it was largely based on “decontextualised” extracts, he said.

As for his future plans, he said that since he had received a multiple entry visa, he would leave the country as scheduled on April 15 and visit Lithuania and other parts of Europe on a lecture tour before heading to the United States. He hoped to be back in India by July, he said.

One of the trustees of the ashram speaking to The Hindu said they had done what they thought was right and the government had taken the decision it had to. The ashram had only done for Mr. Heehs what they did for all foreigners and nothing more, the member said.

According to Jayant Bhattacharya, one of those protesting against the book and opposing Mr. Heehs' visa extension, the case for not extending his visa was strong. If in spite of that the government had decided to grant an extension, there had to be a good reason. The protesters were still examining the case before they decided their next course of action, he said.