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Our Unwitting MPs: Signing a Petition in the Dark

The following article appeared in the Hindi Newspaper Jansatta on August 17, 2012. See below for an English translation. Use this link to read the e-paper.


Our Unwitting MPs: Signing a Petition in the Dark

Pradeep Srivastav, New Delhi, August 16, 2012

The polemics raised by the book TheLives of Sri Aurobindo by the controversial American historian Peter Heehs, pales before the larger controversy that has cropped up as a result of the unwitting plunge taken by some dozens of MPs in this affair. A handful of people opposing this book and the workings of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust have sent a letter to its trustees. They claim that about 60 MPs have affixed their signatures on this letter, which is being distributed to all sorts of people. But the truth that stares at us in this matter is that among the signatory MPs there are hardly any who have either read Peter Heehs’ book or are familiar with the quality of work being carried out by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry or with the ongoing campaign against the Ashram. This letter was sent to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust on 22nd May, 2012.

Among the signatory MPs several confessed that a few people had come to them with a pre-drafted letter. They put forth arguments against the book and claimed that it had dented the national pride and attempted to tarnish Sri Aurobindo’s personality. Among the emissaries who had come with the letter were a couple of MPs.

This reporter also spoke with that MP who was chiefly instrumental in getting other MPs to affix their signature. He asserted having read Peter Heehs’ book. He pointed his finger at Peter’s trustworthiness as well as at the working of the present managing trustees of the Ashram. He also admitted to being connected with the Ashram since quite some time and nonetheless, he pleaded with me not to reveal his name like the other MPs who had (un?)hesitatingly admitted having put their signatures at the behest of some people. One MP also stated that ‘people come to us asking us to sign in order to get our support and we usually give them our signature.’

The Parliament is the highest democratic institution in this country. If over 50 members of Parliament affix their signature together on any petition, request or letter of complaint, some sort of controversy is bound to arise, notwithstanding the fact that before signing, these  representatives of the People are unaware of the sensitivity of the issue involved. In this case they must have signed imagining it to be some sort of recommendation letter. But this was perhaps their first experience of seeing their signatures being misused for ulterior motives.

This habit of our Parliamentarians of affixing their signature has indeed triggered quite a debate. A respected leader of the Congress recounted an incident in this regard. In Bihar some relatives of a civil engineer came to meet the then chief minister Abdul Gafoor with a request letter asking for his transfer. Forty-five MLAs had signed this request letter. Abdul Gafoor observed the signatures of the MLAs, then got up from his chair and told the relatives, ‘Go and tell the honourable engineer to come and sit in the Chief Minister’s chair since he has a larger support from the MLAs than I have. There is the risk that thinking it to be a letter of recommendation they acquire signatures in fact for his (their?) resignation!’

The way a controversy has been raised over Peter Heehs’ book is also strange and unfounded. This biography of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs was published by Columbia University Press, New York in 2008. Peter Heehs had been working in the Ashram library [Archives] in Pondicherry since 1971. Since the American edition was highly priced it was decided to have an Indian edition of the same, but a few people began to oppose the book. They went to the Odisha High Court to stop the printing of the Indian edition claiming that the sentiments of lakhs of Aurobindo’s followers would be hurt. The High Court admitted this petition. The question was, however, raised that Pondicherry falling under the jurisdiction of the Madras High Court, why had the adversaries gone to the Odisha High Court. Dharnas and protests were organized over this book. Heehs’ visa was objected to and this too snowballed into a controversy. The matter was raised in Parliament, debates were aired on TV.

A large number of intellectuals, historians and politicians of this country stood up against this protest. Among them were such reputed intellectuals as Romila Thapar, Ashoke Sen, Pratap Bhanu Mishra [Mehta], Ram Chandra Guha, A.K. Malhotra, Sugata [Bose], etc. They wrote to the then Home Minister P. Chidambaram and subsequently to the PM, Manmohan Singh, praising Peter Heehs, and they opposed any move to cancel his visa. The Central Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh also wrote to Chidambaram taking up Peter Heehs’ brief. In this letter dated 29th March, 2012 Jairam Ramesh said that he had read Heehs’ book and was full of praise for it. He argued in favour of Heehs’ continued stay in India.

When Jairam Ramesh was asked about this, he replied that he had congratulated Heehs by email for his work. He said that a few people were kicking up a row over the book for no solid reason. He also suggested, “I feel not many have read this book”. He had also seen the letter signed by some MPs, several signatures were such that it was difficult to know their identity. I wrote to 31 of the MPs whose names were somewhat clear asking them about their signatures: except for one, no other MP replied! Jairam Ramesh refused to divulge the name of the MP who had replied or say anything about what the reply was.

It is noteworthy that finding the signatures unclear, the Ashram Trust authorities also wrote to the former MP Kartikeshwar Patra, spearheading this movement, to provide the list of the signatories, so as to enable the Ashram to send the replies to the questions raised by them. To-date no list has come to them. Among those who have read Peter Heehs’ book is the respected leader of the BJP and former Central Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. Asked about the book, Joshi said that ‘an unnecessary controversy has been raised about it and that every book must be looked at in its totality. Peter’s evaluation of Sri Aurobindo is as a scholar. This is a commendable book.’

Former Governor of Karnataka and Kerala, T.N. Chaturvedi has been connected with the Ashram since 1963-64. He argued that the facts of whatever Peter Heehs has written in his book are all based on a body of verifiable existing writings. Every incident has been supported with clear references. This biography is based on historic facts. Chaturvedi also charged that a few people, connected with the Ashram, nurture designs of becoming trustees themselves and have, therefore, raised this ruckus. In the August issue of the Sahitya Amrit magazine, T.N. Charturvedi has written a long editorial related to this affair. The managing trustee of the Ashram Trust, Manoj Das Gupta, also charged that some vested interests, taking Heehs’ book as pretext, are trying to attack the Ashram. He reiterated that the Ashram had clearly stated its stand vis-à-vis Peter Heehs’ book: the Ashram has nothing to do with this book and any evaluation or judgment to be made about this book remains a purely personal matter.

  1. Deb
    August 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Thank you Sri Srivastav! great job.

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