Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily's announcement that the central government would ban the book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India had no justification in fact, law, or common sense. The threatened ban on the book — the contents of which Mr. Moily dramatically described as “heresy” — was based, at best, on a total misreading of it and, at worst, on no-reading but relying on grossly misleading reviews in a section of the western media. The biography, written by Joseph Lelyveld, a former editor of the New York Times, does not claim that Mahatma Gandhi was bi-sexual; neither does it portray him as a racist. In the course of a serious exploration that traces the links between the beginning of Gandhi's political life in South Africa and its development in India, the book refers to his close relationship with East Prussian architect Hermann Kallenbach. The strong emotional bond between the two, who lived together for a while on Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, is more than borne out by the letters Gandhiji wrote to Kallenbach. Mr. Lelyveld quotes a Gandhi scholar in the book as characterising their relationship as “homoerotic” rather than “homosexual,” an interpretation one is free to dispute. But surely, that cannot be a basis for banning a book as the Gujarat government has done with great alacrity and the Government of India was seriously considering until Mr. Moily did an about-turn on the issue.

“I am of the earth, earthy … I am prone to as many weaknesses as you are,” the Mahatma famously declared. He explored a number of these weaknesses with extraordinary honesty in My Experiments with Truth. Most publishers love, and some even stage-manage, the kind of controversy that has broken out over what is a small section of a chapter in Mr. Lelyveld's biography. Not so long ago, in grandson Rajmohan Gandhi's Mohandas, a small episode in the Mahatma's life — his relationship with Rabindranath Tagore's niece Saraladevi Chaudharani (“around which Eros too might have lurked”) — became the frenzied focus of the media. Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure empowers authorities to proscribe books if they contain material that breaches the peace or causes communal tension. Surely, it is no one's case that Great Soul does that. The Supreme Court, which has consistently opposed crude attempts at censorship, has severely limited the use of Section 95 to proscribe books. From a quick reading of the controversial references in the Kindle edition, it seems that Mr. Lelyveld has made too much of what is essentially thin source material on the subject. The answer to that is reasoned, informed criticism. The Mahatma would have been the first to protest against any suggestion of an obscurantist ban.


Joe Lelyvelds of this world don't lieApril 1, 2011

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