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Zero tolerance

Print edition : May 06, 2011 T+T-
Joseph Lelyveld. He has denied charges that the book indicates Gandhi was a bisexual.-

Joseph Lelyveld. He has denied charges that the book indicates Gandhi was a bisexual.-

The outrage against a book on Gandhi and a ban on it in Gujarat highlight the intolerance that characterises sections of Indian society.

TYPICAL of a tabloid, Daily Mail of London published a review of Joseph Lelyveld's book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India in which the reviewer claimed that the book portrayed Gandhi as a bisexual who had a relationship with the German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach. Naturally, all hell broke loose in India. The government denounced the book, and politicians across parties bad-mouthed Lelyveld and said the book was anti-national.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi went one step further and banned the book immediately in Gujarat, Gandhi's birthplace. The writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking. Mahatma Gandhi is an idol not only in India but in the entire world, he said.

The Central government denounced the book but has not banned it. After making some loud noises, the Maharashtra government decided not to take any drastic measures.

The outrage against the book and the Gujarat government's ban on it have once again brought to the fore the question of intolerance in the country. In this case, no one seems to have read the book, which is slated to be launched in India only in May.

In recent years, several issues and subjects have become taboo in India. Banning books, censoring films, curbing artists' creativity essentially not allowing the freedom of expression, which is a constitutional right has become rife. In spite of activists fighting against this rising intolerance, the immature handling of such cases by lawmakers has made it difficult to keep the fight going.

Categorical denials

Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has categorically denied charges that the book indicates Gandhi was a bisexual. In a statement to the media he said: It does not say that Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual. It does not say that he was a racist. The word bisexual never appears in the book and the word racist only appears once in a very limited context, relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set attitudes or history in South Africa. I didn't say these things, so I can hardly defend them.

The controversy revolves around the correspondence between Gandhi and Kallenbach. The language used in the communication suggests more than a platonic relationship between the two men. However, Lelyveld points out that this was the sort of language used in those days. It is only in today's context that it seems homosexual.

Lelyveld believes the paragraphs people have taken offence to are excerpts in Kallenbach's diary where Gandhi calls Kallenbach the Lower House and himself the Upper House.

There is also a reference to Gandhi saying cotton wool and vaseline reminded him of Kallenbach. Lelyveld says this refers to the enemas that apparently both Gandhi and Kallenbach enjoyed.

According to Lelyveld, he spent four years researching the book through the National Archives of India. It was not meant to be sensationalist, he says, and that he can only wish that people read about Gandhi's relationships in the right context.

Unfortunately for Lelyveld, Daily Mail published a review that said, Gandhi was deeply in love with Hermann Kallenbach. The Wall Street Journal carried the same review, after which, Lelyveld says, it went viral on the Internet and that led to all this unfortunate trouble.

To questions on who Kallenbach was, Lelyveld says not much is known about him, but clearly the two men shared a deep friendship. However, the relationship is not the central focus of the book.

The author says the intention of the book is to tell the story of Gandhi's struggle for social reform in India. I think I can claim to have uncovered a compelling story, perhaps even a tragic one. The focus is on Gandhi's struggle with India rather than for India, says the author.

A great moral example'

Lelyveld calls Gandhi one of history's most remarkable men and he says he believes Gandhi is a great moral example. A journalist for 40 years, Lelyveld has been a foreign correspondent in South Africa and India. Searching for a subject to write about, he zeroed in on Gandhi, who played a huge role in both the countries he worked in.

A look at the author's professional background proves that his credibility cannot be questioned. Lelyveld has held several top editorial positions. He was the executive editor of The New York Times and later its managing editor.

Interestingly, Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's great grandson and a staunch protector of Gandhi's legacy, has lashed out at the ban. He says the ban would be a greater insult to Gandhi. How does it matter if the Mahatma was straight or gay or bisexual? He would still be the man who led India to freedom, he said.

An open book'

Well-known Gandhian scholar Usha Thakkar says: Gandhi's life is an open book and there are bound to be all sorts of interpretations. Gandhi is an exciting and energising topic for scholars, so there will always be opinions and comments. In the present case, she says, it's just one review. We need to read the book to comment.

When a book is banned or a film censored, says a historian, the questions that need to be asked are whether the facts are incorrect or who decides what should be written about people like Gandhi. Few responsible researchers will have factual errors and therefore a book cannot be banned in an indiscriminate manner without some sort of defence by the author.

Significantly, there have been other similar instances earlier. James Laine's book on Shivaji was taken off the shelves after a violent incident in Pune, where protesters smashed a library that had reportedly helped Laine in his research.

More recently, Rohinton Mistry was in the eye of a storm when Shiv Sainiks demanded his book Such a Long Journey be banned because it made disparaging remarks about them. But the government showed enough maturity not to listen to their rant.

Lelyveld, Laine and Mistry do not live in India, yet they have experienced the heat because some people are feeling offended. All three have commented that it is a shame that a democracy like India is allowing such intolerance.