29 Feb 2012

Book controversy takes an ugly turn

The Hindu

PUDUCHERRY, February 28, 2012

A few Aurobindo devotees stage dharna alleging that it has distorted the facts.

The issue over the controversial book on Sri Aurobindo took an ugly turn when a few of the devotees who were staging dharna outside the Ashram Trust allegedly tried to “prevent” one of the seniormost members of the Trust from entering the office and “snatch” files from his possession. Police personnel posted near the dharna site prevented the two groups from entering into a scuffle.

Police sources said they received a complaint from Dilip Dutta, a senior member of the Trust, accusing the protesters of physically trying to prevent him from entering the office and trying to snatch files from his hand. He had also accused the group of verbally abusing him, a police officer told The Hindu. However, a member of the protesting group denied the accusation and said they were trying to hand over a petition to Dr. Dutta.

A representative of the group that organised the dharna told The Hindu that they had lodged a complaint with Grand Bazaar police against Dr. Dutta and few others for indulging in “racial abuse” and provoking the members. The controversy over the book, ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo', written by American-born Ashram inmate Peter Heehs, has been raging for a while now, particularly after the group opposed to the book launched a series of protests in January demanding expulsion of Mr. Heehs and resignation of members of Trust for not condemning the book openly. The group launched a three-day protest on Sunday with a large number of them coming from Odisha.

A release issued by the group said: “The book contains objectionable matters depicting distorted facts about the life and character of Sri Aurobindo. The Odisha government has declared that every copy of the book, its copies, reprints, translations or other documents containing the extracts taken be forfeited to the government.” 

Decision questioned

The group also questioned the Trust's decision to stand as a guarantor to Mr. Heehs, who has sought a visa extension.

The Trust had been maintaining that it would not do any thing that “contravenes freedom of speech,” and any action on its part against the book or author would be termed as “fundamentalist mindset”. A senior member of the Trust said, “The considered view of the Trust is that it does not project itself in the role of dictating to the readers and followers of Sri Aurobindo as to what they should read and what they should not read.” 

He added that “each person is at complete liberty to decide for him whether he finds any book to be meaningful and useful or whether he does not find it to be so. The Trust respects and has full faith in the intellectual and spiritual discernment of the readers. No one should or need to force his personal opinions on any other reader in general and more particularly on the followers of Sri Aurobindo.”

There have been favourable reviews of the book by large number of people, including eminent authors, he said pointing out that any action against the author would invite the ire of those sections.

On the proscription of the book by the Orissa government, he said it had been challenged in the High Court questioning the validity of the order based on a few “extracts taken out of context from the book.”

A senior inmate of the Ashram who objects to certain portions of the book but at the same time who does not approve of the group behind the protest said, “Mr. Heehs and his book is not the real issue but it is the result of an internal power struggle going on for the last several years.”

On issue of Mr. Heehs visa and his alleged over-staying, a senior police officer said as of now he is an “unconfirmed foreigner” who is allowed to stay till a final order of his visa application by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.

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