THERE is this book on Mahatma Gandhi, written by a former editor of New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld, that is in trouble. Entitled Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, it is purported to have described Gandhi as ‘bisexual and a racist’. The book is not yet available in India. But it was reviewed in British and American newspapers like the Daily Mail, a London tabloid and The Wall Street Journal in New York. The review in the latter is particularly vicious. It asserted that the book provides evidence that Gandhi was “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist”. It has created quite a hullabaloo in India. Commenting on this an article in International Herald Tribune (April 2) said that “Gandhi is still so revered in India that a book about him that few Indians have read and that has not even been published in India may yet be banished nationally”. The article quoted Law Minister Veerappa Moily as saying that “the book denigrates the national pride and leadership”. It also said that “Gandhi is revered even by the young, but there is little significant understanding of the nuances of his philosophy and life” and has been “reduced to an idol”. The media in India has been pretty much ‘liberal’. Hindus-tan Times (March 31) said: “Does the Indian psyche find it abhorrent that its icon and paternal mentor could have erotic longings, any kind of erotic longings? If it does, isn’t that our problem? Going by that most revelatory and ‘truthful’ of texts, My Experiments with Truth, it certainly wouldn’t have bothered Gandhi”. It added: “You don’t need to be a homophobe, let alone someone who considers it to be impossible that the Mahatma in his incarnation as Mohandas may have been a human with human desires, to figure out what Mr Lelyveld is suggesting. So what?” Deccan Herald (April 5) said that “hundreds of books have been written on him (Gandhi) and he has emerged greater from them. The book (by Lelyveld) portrays the evolution of Gandhi’s politics from his experiences in South Africa and the findings of racism in Lelyveld’s study would be most inappropriate”. However, the paper said that “banning a book is the most undemocratic way of dealing with ideas. India, which has a tradition of tolerance and intellectual dissent cannot be any better with the tendency of politicians to drive away books for their narrow political ends… There is no need to protect Gandhi’s image with any law as he can take care of himself”. Soli Sorabji, writing in Indian Express (April 3) said the issue is more fundamental. “Should a book which expresses unpalatable views about a revered figure like Mahatma Gandhi be banned? Or should the same be not rubbished without cogent reasons and material? The Mahatma does not need the protection of a ban on any book which falsely besmirches his character… Gandhiji, I am sure, would have strongly opposed the ban…”
Pranay Gupte who once worked for New York Times and knows Lelyveld well, said, writing in The Hindu (April 2) in defence of the author; “Whatever one’s views of Joe’s extraordinary journalism and puzzling personality, what he writes matters. It matters because he is always the model reporter – even when he is donning the cap of an author; thorough, sceptical, a man who feels for his subjects, a man who synthesises cannily, a writer who is always accurate and graceful. There are not nearly enough of Joe Lelyvelds out there. And say this for Joe: it’s impossible to imagine him making things up about Gandhiji, or about anyone he may be writing about. The Joe Lelyvelds of this world simply don’t lie. They don’t need to. They value truth – just as Gandhiji did”. Interestingly, two of Gandhiji’s grandsons, Rajmohan Gandhi and Gopalkrishna Gandhi writing one after another in Hindustan Times once edited by Gandhi’s own son Devdas Gandhi, have argued that Lelyveld’s book should NOT be banned. Rajmohan Gandhi is presently Research Professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois, US.
According to him “to think of banning the book would be wrong from every point of view, and doubly so in the light of Gandhi’s commitment to freedom of speech”. Writes Rajmohan: “In fact, extreme skepticism, too, should be welcomed, especially in the case of Gandhi, who wanted to live and die for the truth and wanted his life to be an open book”. Rajmohan has obviously read the book because he says that Lelyveld “damns Gandhi not with direct attacks but with an overdose of scepticism” and “seems skeptical of everything about Gandhi”. But adds Rajmohan: “For the long run, we need not mind the Lelyveld book. The more light thrown on Gandhi, the better. Did he not say again and again that he wanted to turn the searchlight inwards?” Gopalakrishna Gandhi in a way defends Lelyveld, saying: “Should we get shocked, one way or the other, by what a review says a book says when the author of the book maintains he doesn’t? We should not”.
Saying that the Gandhi-Kallenbach story as given in the review should help us place “tendentious newspaper reviews where they belong, namely, the green bin for bio-degradables” Gopalkrishna feels that should lead everyone to three things: One, to a study of the remarkable career of that German architect of Jewish descent, Hermann Kallenbach, two, to a self-examination by ourselves (and the media) on the jumpiness over intellectual non-events and non-sequiturs and three, it should alert us to the folly of banning books not because we respect the subject of their scrutiny but because it pays to appear as its protector. Gandhi, least interested in self-protection, is best protected by the strength of his own words and the wordlessness of his own strength”. One wishes Gandhiji had not burnt Kallenbach’s letters to him. But he must have felt that Kallenbach would have liked his letters to Gandhi as strictly private and not for public scrutiny. But those who want to know a little more about Kallenbach would do well to read two books: One by Rajmohan Gandhi and another by Jad Adams, both of whom have dealt with the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship in some detail. Adam’s view is that (page 100) “there is no evidence that his (Kallenbach’s) affection for Gandhi ever approached the physical”. As he put it: There has to be a suspicion of a homo-crotic attachment on the part of Kallenbach”.