by Pratap Bhanu Mehta (President, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi)
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.
I have had a long professional interest in Aurobindo. Heehs’s book was a revelation, one that elevates its subject rather than diminishes him. It is a first-rate piece of intellectual history at many levels. Its reconstruction of Aurobindo’s difficult and often obscure thought is remarkably precise. It is the first book to get the relationship between Aurobindo’s sadhna and his philosophy almost exactly right. It is a measure of its acuteness that it has grasped a deep philosophical fact: that most of Aurobindo’s oeuvre, including the The Life Divine, is an extended reworking of the Isa Upanishad. Its descriptions of Aurobindo’s own sadhna, are vivid; its reconstruction of his political theory, and the later Aurobindo’s surprising and insightful political judgements splendid. Why would such a book draw ire?
There are three ridiculous charges against the book. The first is Aurobindo’s self-confessed lack of physical courage and tendency to dissimulate in his young days. But this is understandably human; Aurobindo would be diminished if he never had fears and never lied. The remarkable story is the story of his transformation. The second is the alleged association of spiritual experience with madness. This charge is rubbish. Heehs discusses the biographical fact of madness in the family. He briefly refers to the theory that the line between a heightened state of awareness and madness is a thin one. But the thrust of the book is Aurobindo’s remarkable self-possession; the reference to this possible theory only heightens the sense of constancy in his career. The question is pertinent for Aurobindo since the whole point of his own quest was to distinguish a true spiritual experience from the simulacrum of one. Aurobindo’s own struggle had this caution: If you are going to explore the frontiers of consciousness, don’t be too confident that you understand what you have experienced. The third charge is an alleged relationship with Mother (Mirra). As a historian, Heehs simply recounts two incidents for which there is eye witness evidence that requires interpretation. On the face of it the incidents don’t tell you all that much about the relationship, though it is hard to describe even within the traditional categories of Shakti. But the reactions tell you a great deal about the fragility and close-mindedness of those who are shocked.
So the explanation for why people are offended has little to do with the content of the book. It has more to do with two failures. The first is a failure of liberal education that leaves you completely unprepared to handle complexity. I am not a fan of psychoanalytic interpretations of dubious value, an industry that often gets scandalously more academic respectability than it deserves. But in India a book that has the slightest hint of curiosity about the unconscious recesses of the mind is destined to be condemned. Even in Ramanujan’s great essay on the many Ramayanas, now banished from Delhi University, the parts that actually cause discomfort in students are the hints of Freudian interpretation; it is not the claim about diversity. How could it be otherwise for an undergraduate culture that has never read Freud and therefore does not know how to respond even when they disagree? For a culture whose texts are remarkably adventurous in exploring both the higher reaches of consciousness and its lower depths, this unthinking and unconfident recoil at a mere mention of psychological possibilities is a reflection of our cramped education.
But the second failure is among the so-called believers to cultivate a proper religious sensibility. Heehs is accused of writing from the standpoint of a non-believer, even though the book is an extraordinary work of sraddha. Aurobindo himself was conscious of two things. First, that the reconstruction of fragments of tradition was hard; the meaning of many sacred texts was simply inaccessible to us. Despite working laboriously, Aurobindo more or less admitted that he had not been able to recover the meaning of the Vedas. Most who read him on the subject cannot either, but do not have his self-confidence to admit it. Rather than admitting the inherent difficulty of the enterprise, the response is to draw a protective curtain and monumentalise tradition, as if to raise difficult questions is to commit an offence.
Second, following the Upanishads, the central category for most modern Indian intellectual history is not faith but experience. After all is said and done, the authority of any claim derives not from its antiquity or its revealed character, but its relation to experience. This is a kind of enlarged empiricism, albeit of a curious kind. The relationship between “higher experiences” and ordinary life, the relationship between the transcendent and the social, has also continuously plagued modern Indian intellectual history. For figures like Aurobindo and Vivekananda, this tension is resolved at the plane of their consciousness. But it is never even remotely resolved at the level of social existence. For followers, bereft of the experience, what remains is the assertion of faith. We put ourselves under the yoke of the Divine when we feel its presence the least.
Aurobindo wanted to “prepare India for Truth”. But the relentless assault on scholarship, the cramped sensibility with which we approach tradition, and the reduction of intellectual life to questions of identity suggest one thing: we are not prepared for any truth, whether it comes with a small “t” or a capital “T”.
In Hume’s Footsteps
by Ramachandra Guha (Philippe Roman Chair of International Affairs and History, London School of Economics)
Many Indians know that it was an Englishman, Allan Octavian Hume, who set up the Indian National Congress; and that it was an Englishman, Charles Freer Andrews, who was Mahatma Gandhi’s closest friend, in that capacity of lobbying with the British to grant India freedom, while (on his own steam
and following his own conscience) writing a series of stirring pamphlets on the shameful condition of Indian labourers in Fiji, Africa, and the Caribbean. Indians also know that an Irishwoman, Annie Besant, established a ‘Home Rule League’ promoting self-governance for India, as well as schools for Indian girls in Benares, Madras, and elsewhere.
The line of western fighters for India’s freedom is long. There is a perhaps longer (if less well known) list of foreigners who, after the British departed, made signal contributions to the now independent Republic of India. Consider the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote a series of very moving studies of the tribals of central India, bringing their predicament to wider attention. In 1954 he became the first foreigner to be granted Indian nationality; moving the same year to Shillong, he was appointed adviser to the Government of the North East Frontier Agency (as Arunachal Pradesh was then known). In that capacity he promoted policies that protected tribal claims to land and forest; that resisted encroachment on their homeland by outsiders; that urged senior officials to be sympathetic to their languages and lifestyles. Partly – some would say largely – as a result of Elwin’s policies, Arunachal is the one state in the North-east which has not had a secessionist movement.
In 1957 an Oxford man even more brilliant than Elwin took up Indian nationality. This was JBS Haldane, who is regarded as one of the three or four greatest biologists since Charles Darwin. Haldane set up research schools in Calcutta and Orissa, groomed some fine students, and himself wrote a rivetingly readable newspaper column that made ordinary Indians aware of the wonders and mysteries of science. When Haldane died, in 1964, his body – as per his will – was sent to a nearby medical college, so that his fellow Indians would improve their scientific skills at his expense.
Elwin and Haldane were principally scholars and writers. Two other Europeans who made India their own were principally social activists. The first, called Catherine Mary Heilman by her parents, took the name Sarla Behn after coming to India and becoming a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. She set up an ashram in rural Kumaun, which still functions, educating young girls and training them in weaving and other crafts. Sarla Behn identified completely with her homeland. She courted arrest during the Quit India Movement of 1942. In the 1950s she groomed a new generation of social workers, among them such remarkable activists as Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Radha Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. In the 1970s, these activists started the Chipko Movement, while in turn training the next generation of activists, those who led the movement for a state of Uttarakhand.
Another Gandhian of English origin was Laurie Baker. In the 1950s, he helped his Malayali wife run a hospital in a village in Pithoragarh, close to the Nepal border. Later, they moved to Kerala where Baker, who was trained as an architect, resumed his profession, now adapted to Indian conditions. His decentralised and ecologically-oriented approach was in stark contrast to the concrete-and-glass-heavy methods of contemporary architecture. Using local craftsmen and local materials, he built some wonderful homes and offices, among them the campus of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, where his methods saved so much money that the Centre was able to build a world-class library as well.
Contemporary exemplars of this admirable trend of cross-cultural living (and giving) include the economist Jean Dreze and the sociologist Gail Omvedt. Without Dreze, who was born in Belgium, there might never have been a National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; without Omvedt, who is of American origin, gender and Dalit studies in India would be far less robust.
It is in this noble tradition that Peter Heehs falls. Heehs was recently in the news, for the fact that after staying in India for nearly 40 years he finds his visa status in peril. In his decades in this country Heehs has won a considerable reputation as a historian and biographer. His books The Bomb in Bengal and The Lives of Sri Aurobindo are superb works of historical scholarship. The latter book, first published to wide acclaim by Columbia University Press, is not yet available in India, owing to a court case filed by motivated (and perhaps ignorant) people. As one who has read the book I can say that it’s unlikely ever to be surpassed. It deals with all facets of Aurobindo’s life – student, teacher, revolutionary, ascetic, spiritualist, poet, philosopher – with scrupulous sympathy combined with scrupulous honesty.
No one knows more than Heehs about the life of Sri Aurobindo. And no one has done more, either, to preserve Sri Aurobindo’s works for posterity. Heehs and his colleagues – some western, some Indian – were instrumental in setting up the archives of the Aurobindo Ashram; and in publishing 16 volumes of Aurobindo’s writings, these painstakingly transcribed over very many years of selfless service. Yet this is the man, and scholar, now threatened with deportation from India due to the intrigues of petty and motivated men.
As I write this, news comes that the home ministry is ‘reviewing’ Heehs’ visa extension. One trusts that the review is favourable; that would be the right thing for (and by) Heehs, for Sri Aurobindo, and for India.
Ban the Ban
by Ramachandra Guha
Earlier this year, the Gujarat government banned a book on Mahatma Gandhi by an American writer. The book was not then available in India, and no one in Gujarat had read it. The ban, ordered by the chief minister, Narendra Modi, was on the basis of a tendentious news report and a still more tendentious book review.
After Modi announced his ban, the first instinct of the government of India was to emulate him. Congress spokesmen called for a countrywide ban. The then law minister, Veerappa Moily, indicated that he would follow their lead. There was a spirit of competitive chauvinism abroad; how could the Congress allow a non-Congress politician to claim to be defending the reputation of the Mahatma?
In the event, the government of India did not enforce a ban on the book. This was principally because of two quick, focused interventions by Rajmohan Gandhi and Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Both are grandsons of the Mahatma; both, besides, are scholars and public figures in their own right. Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna wrote signed articles in the press saying that a ban would be contrary to the spirit of Gandhi, a man who encouraged and promoted debate; it would also call into question India’s claims to be the world’s largest democracy.
A ban makes news; the withdrawal of a ban does not. Gandhi scholars in particular, and Indians in general, owe Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna a debt of gratitude, for pressurizing the government to allow the free circulation of Joseph Lelyveld’s The Great Soul in 27 states of the country. It remains illegal to own or possess a copy of the book in the 28th state of the Union, which happens to be Gandhi’s own. By banning the book before it was available, Modi thought he could camouflage his sectarian leanings in the protective cloak of the Mahatma’s pluralism. In the event, once the government of India — bowing to the sensible advice of Gandhi’s grandsons — allowed the free circulation of the book, the fact that it is not yet legally available in Gujarat only exposes the insularity and xenophobia of that state’s chief minister.
Sadly, the bravery (and decency) of Gandhi’s grandsons has not been emulated by defenders or descendants of some other great men of modern India. Consider the fate, within India, of a biography of Sri Aurobindo written by Peter Heehs. Heehs is a real scholar, the author of several substantial works of history (among them The Bomb in Bengal). What’s more, he was for many years in charge of the archives in the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry.
In 2008, Columbia University Press in New York published Peter Heehs’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. The product of a lifetime of scholarship, its empirical depth and analytical sharpness is unlikely to be surpassed. For Heehs knows the documentary evidence on and around Aurobindo’s life better than anyone else. He has a deep knowledge of the political and spiritual worlds in which his subject moved and by which he was shaped.
Alas, this remarkable life of a remarkable Indian cannot be read in India. This is because of an injunction on its sale asked for by self-professed devotees of Aurobindo, and granted by a hyper-active high court in Orissa. Heehs’s book is respectful but not reverential. He salutes Aurobindo for his contributions to the freedom struggle. Before Aurobindo, writes Heehs, “no one dared to speak openly of independence; twenty years later, it became the movement’s accepted goal”. He praises Aurobindo’s contributions to literature and philosophy. However, Heehs is gently sceptical of the claim that Aurobindo possessed supernatural powers. “To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith,” he writes, adding that “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma”.
This understated, unexceptionable statement drove the dogmatic followers of Aurobindo bananas. Some devotees filed a case in the Orissa High Court, restraining the Indian publisher from circulating the book in India. Other devotees filed a case in a Tamil Nadu court, seeking the revocation of Peter Heehs’s visa and his extradition from this country. By these (and other) acts, the contemporary keepers of Aurobindo’s flame showed themselves to be far less courageous than the grandsons of Gandhi. Is their icon so fragile that he can be destroyed or even damaged by a single, scholarly, book?
Consider, next, the case of The Polyester Prince, a book about Dhirubhai Ambani published in 1998 by an Australian journalist named Hamish McDonald. This was no work of scholarship — slight in weight and substance, it was yet noteworthy for its documentation of the intimate connections between a successful entrepreneur on the one side and senior politicians and government officials on the other. The book was not sold in India — for reasons never made clear, but which certainly had something to do with the thin skins of the subject’s descendants.
In fact, it was almost impossible to get a copy of The Polyester Prince outside India as well. Someone — we may speculate who or whom — had apparently bought up and pulped the remaining stock. The few available copies were selling on internet sites for upwards of $500 a copy. Last year, the book was issued in a new edition, and with a new title. Now called Ambani and Sons, it contained some fresh chapters on the next generation of the family. However, many critical references to politicians and to the Ambanis themselves, present in the original edition, had been dropped. This was the price asked for by an Indian publisher in exchange for the rights to distribute the book in this country.
As these cases illustrate, the republic of India bans books with a depressing frequency. Three factors promote this culture of banning. First, the descendants or devotees of biographical subjects are often too nervous or insecure to have them discussed with objectivity and rigour. Second, these fanatical or insecure followers have found an ally in the courts. Although the Supreme Court has tended to act on the side of the freedom of expression, lower courts have been less wise. Judges who are malleable or publicity-hungry pass injunctions forbidding the free circulation of books and works of art. Few petitioners have the time, or money, or energy, to wait and fight till the case reaches the Supreme Court (a process that can take years). A ban once invoked is therefore rarely revoked.
The third and most significant reason for the proliferation of bans is the pusillanimity of our political class. An early example was the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses by Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1989. As the historian, Dharma Kumar, wrote at the time, the ban was “a sign of the Government’s weakness. In a secular state blasphemy should not in itself be a cognizable offence; the President of India is not the defender of any nor of all faiths”.
In subsequent years, governments and politicians of all stripes have recklessly banned books, films, and paintings that simply express a point of view. The Left Front in Bengal promoted a ban on the novels of the brave Bangladeshi writer, Tasleema Nasreen; Narendra Modi has banned a book on Jinnah as well at least one film by Aamir Khan; the party of Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra was instrumental in a ban on a scholarly book on Shivaji; rampaging bands of Hindutvawadis destroyed paintings by M.F. Husain and, by filing case after case against him in the courts, forced him into exile.
It is a sorry tale, this tale of cowardice in the face of intimidation. Lower courts and even some high courts have been accomplices in this process of the stifling of free speech. So too have been politicians of all parties and governments. Indian democrats may take solace in the few exceptions: these being the institution of the Supreme Court, and those public-spirited public figures, Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna Gandhi.