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.

If Sri Aurobindo was still residing in his “cave” at Pondicherry, he would have welcomed the book, critiqued it — but most important, he would have read it. But if an April 9, 2009 notification by the Orissa government is to be taken seriously, this is what it suggests: we have not read the book but the select excerpts given to us by interested parties is enough evidence for us to ban the book. For those who enjoy legalese, you can read the notification here.

So far so good. During the course of my investigation into this affair, this notification was given to me as “evidence” by a party that’s fighting another case against the trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, holding them responsible for harbouring Heehs and seeking their removal. This group of people and the petitioner — Mrs Gitanjali JB, who in her writ petition to the High Court of Orissa at Cuttack has said she lives in Balasore, though the last time I tried to contact her, I was told she lives in Chennai — are allegedly related. Although I could not independently verify the relationship, it is pretty clear that the two are working together. So, when they emailed me the “evidence”, they forgot to attach another document that supported this senseless notification.

This is a February 13, 2009 report written by the IG Police Intelligence to Dr K.C. Sarangi, OAS, the deputy secretary to government, home (special section) department. According to the IG’s report, Heehs’s book is not available in Bhubaneswar or Cuttack and “hence its entire contents are not known but photocopies of extracts of the book”, that form part of Mrs Gitanjali JB’s writ are. Based on this shallow, incomplete and clearly prejudiced evidence — and without undertaking the rigour of independent investigation by attempting to check the context within which these extracts have been provided — the IG has suggested to the government that the book “appears to be blasphemous” and “appears to be a fit case for invoking action u/s 95 Cr.P.C”. I can only pity the Orissa government for having such an incompetent officer in charge of such a critical function. You can read this illiterate piece of literature here.

In its November 4, 2008 order, the Orissa High Court ordered Mrs Gitanjali JB to make a representation before the Ministries of Home and Information and Broadcasting and the book should be published only after getting a no-objection certificate from them. The Home Ministry has not taken any decision so far. So, in its April 20, 2009 order, the Orissa High Court adjourned the case, “with the direction that the Central Government may take a decision as early as possible”. There has been no decision since then. What are they waiting for — Godot? They should either say yes or no or that it is beyond their brief. Its silence speaks of a frozen government, unable and unwilling to do its job.

Courts have their own processes and the legal system works on its own time. But it is curious to note, as senior lawyer AG Noorani did, the five objections of this order. These include “unprecedented abdication of judicial power and responsibility in favour of an outside authority; worst of all, the State” and the fact that the author and the publisher need to be heard in the interest of natural justice. Do read the piece here.

When Heehs appealed the setting aside of this notification, a three-judge bench was formed. “When the book has not been published in India, it is not traceable to any call of action for such a ban and for such a notification,” Heehs’s lawyer Prasanta Kishore Ray said. “So, banning this book amounts to banningfreedom of expression. It amounts to banning thinking. That is how the three-judge bench were shocked to hear that the book has not been published in India.” In a January 17, 2012 oral order, the court called upon the Advocate General of Orissa, Ashok Mohanty, to justify this notification, Ray said. I doubt if Mohanty will have any.

One last point on Heehs’s book. This time I invite you to a sojourn in time, all of 30 years ago. In a November 8, 1982 judgement, the Supreme Court declared that Sri Aurobindo’s teachings cannot be said to be of a religious nature. “Numerous utterings by Sri Aurobindo or the Mother unmistakably show that the Ashram or Society or Auroville is not a religious institution,” the judgement said. “There can be no better proof than what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother themselves thought of their teachings and their institutions to find out whether the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and his Integral Yoga constitute a religion or a philosophy. The uttering made from time to time by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother hardly leave any doubt about the nature of the institution. It was on the basis that it was not a religious institution.” You can read another excerpt here.

The point: if Sri Aurobindo is not a religious entity and his teachings not a religion, how can his biography hurt any religious person? This is a question that many devotees, in their blind faith, ignore. India is home to gurus and spiritual teachers. All of them stated clearly that they are not professing a religion but a way of life, call it spirituality if you must. To convert those words, those ideas, those books, those teachings into a religion is the biggest crime against their own gurus. If Sri Aurobindo were around, he would have shuddered to have been called an author of yet another ‘religion’ and steered clear of anything to do with it.

Those terming Sri Aurobindo’s yoga a religion need to do their homework. If they are unwilling to go through the rigour of reading, the least they should do is what Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator The Mother suggested: “When you have nothing pleasant to say about something or somebody in the Ashram, keep silent. You must know that this silence is faithfulness to the Divine’s work.”

Returning the issue that’s bigger and vaster and more precious than any single book or person, I find that as a society, India’s level of tolerance and toleration — something we push strongly for in other countries, the Bhagwad Gita being banned in Russia that I wrote about earlier, for instance — has fallen to depths unseen. We use whatever tools we can to curb free speech — threat, violence, politics, power, goons, police, state, non-state and this new development of abusing the due process of law that results in delaying books from being published.

I had a discussion about free speech with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Center for Policy Research, one of Asia’s most respected think tanks. “Why do we tolerate,” he asked. “I feel safe when offensive people are tolerated. I can conclude that if society can tolerate these bozos, surely I’m safe. It’s a psychological security.” That’s on the physical front. But go a step deeper and here’s what those lining up to curb free speech in this name or that issue need to understand. “We put ourselves under God’s yoke when we are furthest away from god,” Mehta said. “Right now, there is a fragility of faith.”

Let Heehs’s book not fall at the alter of that fragility.

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