Gandhi And Lelyveld- Are We Over-reacting?

Posted on April 5, 2011


By Sunanda Ranjan:

The ban- happy state of Gujarat has already done it; and the Center is being persistently pressured to follow the suit. We are talking about the banning of former New York Times Journalist Joseph Lelyveld’s latest book, “The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His struggle with India”, which apparently suggests that the Father of the Indian Nation may have had bisexual leanings and a racist nature, the author’s denial notwithstanding.

The collective demand is to bar the book from Indian markets for the disparaging remarks it casts on a person considered the epitome of piety by a near universal consensus. But, do we really need to?

In keeping with the tradition of fame, that all bouquets be followed by an equal (if not greater) number of brickbats, Gandhi has been one of the most written, spoken and discussed about figures in human history. He is glorified for his non-violent rebellion against the seemingly indomitable Raj, but is also criticized for his political games and a supposedly bloated sense of self-importance. All considered his instrumentality in India’s freedom and removal of social evils is without a doubt unquestionable.

Lelyveld is crying himself hoarse, insisting his book suggests no such thing. However, the proponents of the ban couldn’t care less. They feel it’s no less blasphemous that his book should inspire reviewers to deduct such an idea- they are referring to the Daily Mail and The Washington Post reviews, which centered their entire appraisal around the book’s claim that Gandhi left his wife to go live with his German “lover” friend, and also made certain derogatory remarks about the Blacks in South Africa.

However, as someone who hasn’t read the book, I hold no right either to corroborate or deny these allegations. Nevertheless, as an ardent advocate of minimal censorship, I wish to question whether banning the book in the country is correct altogether.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is the strongest symbol of India’s soft-power. Half the world knows India as Gandhi’s land, and till today it’s his words advocating communal harmony which are quoted time and again to quell religious tensions. He is the sole entity in this diverse nation, who is free of any affiliations except to the universal notion of peace, and one who is considered a shared, unified possession of the whole nation, and not any particular community.

In his remembrance we’ve had exhaustive biographies, records on national independence both appreciative as well as derisive of his role, blockbuster movies, and what not. His influence on us as a nation can be gauged from the unanimous reverence accorded to him by all alike, and the many “nagars” and “colonies” named after him. So we may not follow all that he preached, and may not approve of all his teachings either, and he is unquestionably one of the most controversial figures, but as a nation we do love him, and he is easily the man we quote the most when we wish to espouse the better human ideals.

So, will a book claiming to expose unknown facets of his life, things we as a society may frown upon, and which conflict with every notion we ever held about him, change or diminish his stature in our country? Can it possibly?

And as far as disparaging remarks about his character go, what’s the harm in our reading them if they enjoy factual corroboration? And in the circumstance that they don’t, can’t the public discern between fact and fabrication?

Why are we so easily offended by statements which shed uncharacteristic light on our leaders? In this case, is it simply because we are too repulsed by the idea of someone trying to tarnish our dear old man’s image? And on the off chance that the facts stated were indeed true, and Gandhi actually did possess homosexual leanings, would it take away from all the contributions he has made to our country, and the world at large as the patron of Peace and Non-violence that he was?

If somebody claims to have something new to say about a person who is such an, nay, the most integral part of our national psyche, don’t we have the right to know it…to understand another side of his if proved true, and outrightly dismiss it otherwise?

It’s a national obsession, unique to us to believe our heroes to be bereft of all human failings. We tend to put them on a pedestal, that practically speaking, is out of any human being’s reach.

Don’t ban the book I would suggest; hold it open for discussion instead. Gandhi for one is beyond any trivial attempts at “character assassination”. Let the citizenry arrive at the verdict on its own-you can’t ban anything that is unpalatable to your individual notions of decency. First it was Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah…now this. Soon, this banning glory will be bestowed upon an actual revelation of pertinent consequence.

What are we afraid of after all? The TRUTH?