PC seeks review of decision on historianís visa

After spending four decades in Puducherry and emerging as a frontline scholar on freedom fighter-turned spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, American historian Peter Heehs' stay in the country is hanging in balance following the decision by the Foreigner Regional Registration Office that his visa will not be extended beyond April 15.

The issue was taken up by some scholars who brought it to the attention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. Chidambaram has ordered a suo motu review of the decision taken by the FRRO, Puducherry.

Heehs has been in India since 1971 immersing himself in studies surrounding the life and teachings of Aurobindo. He is regarded as an expert in the field, working at the Aurobindo Ashram Archives for the past several years.

His troubles started with the publication of the book, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, in 2008 by the Columbia University Press in New York. While noted historian Ramachandra Guha ó who said that the book was "the product of a lifetime of scholarship, its empirical depth and analytical sharpness is unlikely to be surpassed" ó was among those who appreciated the work, a section of devotees termed it as "blasphemous" and obtained an injunction from the Orissa High Court in 2009 against its sale and distribution in India. Another case filed at the Madras High Court sought cancellation of his visa and his expulsion from the country. Interestingly, it was a private individual who preferred the petition and not the Aurobindo Ashram authorities.

Following the furore, the authorities had placed under suspension his visa for nearly two years. He was recently informed that the validity of his visa ends on April 15 after which no new application would be accepted from him.

According to those familiar with his works, Heehs' book is a scholarly work for which truth, not belief, is the means and end. Heehs, who has written nine books on Aurobindo, India's freedom struggle, and spirituality, has pointed out that for this book he did extensive research in the archives across the country, especially in Delhi and Kolkata.

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