Every time a book is banned a demon gets its wings.
And it always exposes the ignorance, crudeness and general bad faith of the banners. That’s why leading intellectuals in India, not to mention members of Mahatma Gandhi’s family, are rushing to condemn the banning of a new biography of the Father of Indian independence.
“Banning a book is not a democratic action,” said writer and intellectual K Sachidanandan, as reported by the Indian news site IBNLive, while fellow writer Namita Gokhale added, “In India a democratic space for ideas is a gift and I think banning a book is the most pointless exercise.”
The state assembly of Gurajat, a province in western India, voted unanimously on Wednesday to ban Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, by the Pulitzer Prize winner journalist and scholar Joseph Lelyveld. The action came in response to book reviews asserting Lelyveld outs Ghandi as a homosexual.
Another Indian state, Maharashtra, is also contemplating a ban, according to the Associated Press, and officials there have joined with Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi, to ask the central government to stop publication nationwide.
In possibly the single stupidest remark ever uttered by an official in a democratic country, Modi said Lelyveld should apologize publicly for “hurting the sentiments of millions of people.” But Sanjay Dutt, spokesman for the ruling Congress Party in Maharashtra, seems determined to match him imbecility for imbecility:
“It has become a fashion to tarnish the image of great Indian leaders for self publicity and sale of books,” said Dutt. “The government should invoke a law to severely punish anyone who tarnishes the image of the father of the nation.”
Did I mention the book is not yet available in India?
Lelyveld is understandably frustrated since a) his Indian government critics have not read the book, and b) he does not believe Gandhi was gay or bisexual — or a racist, another accusation.
“I do not allege that Gandhi is a racist or bisexual in Great Soul,” he told the Times of India. “The word ‘bisexual’ nowhere appears in the book.”
The controversy is predicated on early reviews in the U.S. and Britain by critics who apparently lack the wit to realize 21st century attitudes and terminology about sex did not prevail in earlier times and places. True, Gandhi expressed his friendship with a German bodybuilder named Hermann Kallenbach in passionate terms: “How completely you have taken possession of my body,” reads one widely quoted letter from Gandhi to Kallenbach. “This is slavery with a vengeance.”
But to say the two men were gay lovers is to betray even a willingness to understand Gandhi, or his time, or how they differ from our own. So naturally a headline in Britain’s Daily Mirror, “Gandhi ‘left his wife to live with a male lover’ new book claims,” gave rise to this headline in the Mumbai Mirror: “Book claims German man was Gandhi’s secret love.”
“The book does not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual,” Lelyveld wrote in an email. “It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. This is not news.”
Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud, a key source for Lelyveld’s portrayal of the friendship between Gandhi and Kallenbach, says that in the late 19th century and early 20th century men addressed each other in terms that now are used only for lovers. “Joseph is not talking about what the reviewers are claiming,” says Suhrud, who has read the book.
The question of whether or not Lelvyeld says, implies, hints or suggests that Gandhi was gay is important as a matter of historical accuracy and fairness to the writer and his intent as a historian. But beyond that is a larger question, which might be summed up as:
So what if Gandhi was gay?
To his everlasting credit, not to mention the glory of India as a nation with hope for a democratic future, Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi addressed this directly.
“How does it matter if the Mahatma was straight, gay or bisexual?” he said. “Every time he would still be the man who led India to freedom,” adding that he opposes “the culture of banning books.” He promised to oppose any ban on Lelyveld’s book.
“If the government of Maharashtra bans the book, it will be a greater insult to Bapu than that book or the author might have intended,” Gandhi wrote in a tweet.
Shh. Wait — what’s that sound? Ah, I think an angel just got its wings.