Banning opinion: What would Gandhi do?
By banning the book on Mahatama Gandhi, Indian politicians are contradicting their own liberal tradition.
In the words of 16th century English author and philosopher Francis Bacon:
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
In the 21st century, a section of Indian politicians want to add one more line to this sentence: some books are to be banned without reading and knowing the name of the author.
Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India has become a tool in the hands of a group of politicians who don’t know its full title or its author but want to ban the book because it insults Gandhi.
The campaign leader
Among the leading proponents of this campaign to proscribe the book is the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi.
Modi is on a mission to destroy everything Gandhi stood for. His name is an antithesis of secularism, an idea for which Gandhi remained committed throughout his life and sacrificed his life for.
By banning the book, Modi has insulted the father of the nation by turning against the very grain of the Gandhian philosophy- freedom of speech and expression.
Gandhi’s life was an open book for his followers so long he was alive. All his actions were within the sight of the nation - be it his experiments with politics or sex.
WSJ starts the debate
The book in question generated controversy after a review in the Wall Street Journal in which Gandhi is described as:
“a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him.
Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.”
The review also talks about his relationship with a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach in South Africa. It quotes letters Gandhi wrote to his friend after parting in an attempt to establish some homoerotic relationship between them.
This book is still not available in India. The ban has been imposed on the basis of one review and self-serving politicians have started debunking a book – an action that Lelyveld says is shameful:
"In a country that calls itself a democracy, it is shameful to ban a book that no one has read, including the people who are doing the banning."
"It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual," explains the author.
But assuming the mantle of a saint and votary of political morality, the rightist Narendra Modi banned the book in Gujarat, the place where Gandhi was born.
Veteran Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud read the book and said:
“As we seek to ban the book on the ground that it constitutes insult to the father of the nation, we should remember that the book itself makes no statements of the kind which are attributed to it. But, that cannot be the sole ground on which the decision to ban or not ban a book rests. No civilised, democratic society can ban a book, however blasphemous or salacious. The only response to a book can be a book, a counter-argument.”
But the largest democracy of the world under the leadership of prudish leadership tries to scuttle the debate which is a crux and crucible of a mature society.
After coming under heavy criticism from the intelligentsia and the right thinking people of India, Union Minister Veerappa Moily who was earlier advocating a ban, has taken back his word.
A history of taboos
This is not the first instance of a book being the target of political class. Maharashtra still continues with the ban on James Laine’s book Shivaji - The Hindu King in Muslim India despite Supreme Court’s intervention against such a move.
Not long ago Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey was taken off from the syllabus of the Bombay University due to protests by the Shiv Sena over some unpalatable reference in the book against the Hindu fanatic group.
This kind of intolerance was also shown towards the famous painter M F Hussain who was virtually forced to abdicate his citizenship of the country.
In his latest book In -Tolerant Indian: Why we Must Rediscover A Liberal Space, veteran journalist Gautam Adhikari says that:
“...violent politics of forces on the right and the left have overshadowed the idea of a liberal, tolerant society that India’s founding fathers dreamed of, where many views would compete for public attention, where the motto ‘live and let live’ would be the nation’s guiding philosophy, and where India would be a liberal-democratic beacon for emerging nations of the developing world”.
It is ironic that a country that celebrates the Kama Sutra and the sexual freedom it represents feels threatened by a debate on individuals’ preference.
By banning this book, we negate our own liberal tradition.
Those who advocate the banning of the book are not trying to protect the reputation of Gandhi but are sullying the democratic image and reputation of the country. The freedom of thought and expression is core to this democracy.
We are still far away from such a situation where dissent is tolerated.
This is the second attack on Gandhi at his birthplace; the first took place in 2002 when the state deliberately forgot to adhere to secular values and allegedly allowed the mass murder of Muslim s. The second is curbing the fundamental right to expression.
Burning and banning of a book has not succeeded in destroying the ideas and truth enshrined in a work of art.
The likes of Narendra Modi need to be reminded of the dialogue between Rosseau and Voltaire:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.