Category: history

some remarkable foreigners who have made India their home

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