Banning books shows insecurity - Praful Bidwai - Monday, April 18, 2011

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Milosevic Modi has again set a new low in Indian politics. His government has banned Great Soul, a new biography of Mahatma Gandhi by former New York Times India bureau chief and editor Joseph Lelyveld. The ground for the ban is hearsay – a review of the book by Andrew Roberts, a British practitioner of canned imperialist history and focussed on royalty, in the far-Right Wall Street Journal.

The review maliciously misinterpreted parts of the book to claim that Gandhi had a homoerotic relationship with German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach in South Africa. British tabloid Daily Mail ran the lurid headline: “Gandhi ‘left his wife to live with a male lover’ new book claims”.

Those who have read the book say Kallenbach’s name appears in less than one-tenth of its pages. Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach was close and friendly, not erotic or sexual. Reputed psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, one of the first analysts to write on Gandhi’s sexuality in Intimate Relations and later, in Mira and Mahatma, and who reviewed some of his correspondence with Kallenbach, does not believe the two were lovers.

Kakar says nothing in Gandhi’s writings suggests that he had a sexual relationship with Kallenbach. Gandhi’s letters often carried strong love language, including those to female associates and to leaders like Rabindranath Tagore and CF Andrews, a founder of the Indian National Congress. But his feelings were ‘platonic’, not sexual.

Gandhi and Kallenbach were both sworn to brahmacharya (celibacy). Kallenbach told his brother in 1908 that after he met Gandhi “I have given up my sex life”. Ultimately, Kallenbach violated the vow by entering into a sexual relationship with a woman.

According to Kakar, Gandhi believed in the ‘Hindu’ idea that “sexuality has this elemental energy which gets dissipated. If it can be sublimated and contained, it can give you spiritual power. Gandhi felt his political power really came from his celibacy, from his spiritual power.”

Gandhi’s Story of My Experiments with Truth describes his struggles to overcome sexual temptation, to the point of asking his 17-year-old grand-niece Manu to sleep next to him. He wanted not to be roused and told Manu she should think of him as her mother.

Roberts is equally wrong to claim that Gandhi was an anti-Black racist. Gandhi worked with South African Zulus and during the Boer War espoused the Blacks’ cause. The fiction about Gandhi’s ‘racism’ probably arises from Roberts’ uncritical admiration for Churchill, who passionately hated and reviled the ‘naked fakir’.

Gandhi’s was an extremely, and uniquely, complex personality. He tried to combine spirituality and personal morality with politics. This found expression in his concept of satyagraha and his use of numerous fasts as political instruments. One may agree or disagree with the objectives of the fasts, such as the one leading to the Poona Pact under which B R Ambedkar was forced to drop his demand for a separate Dalit electorate. But that’s a different discourse altogether.

The fraudulent charge that Gandhi was a bisexual, who deserted his wife for Kallenbach, has provoked narrowly parochial reaction from many Indian politicians who want Lelyveld’s book banned. These include Maharashtra’s ruling leaders, and worse, Union Law Minister M Veerappa Moily. Moily said “history will not forgive us” if Lelyveld’s book is published in India and blasphemous lies disseminated about the Father of the Nation.

The reaction is profoundly irrational because none of those clamouring for banning the book has read it. They are led by third- and fourth-hand accounts, magnifying misinterpretations and distortions. This pro-ban zealotry may be spurred by homophobia, a hatred of homosexuality which continues to attract stigma – despite the Delhi High Court’s recent decriminalisation of same-sex relationships.

The social pathology here runs deeper than archaic notions of personal morality, and the state’s role in policing and enforcing one (wrongly) privileged version of it. It lies in the fear of free debate and radical, even irreverent, questioning of received wisdom. This inevitably leads to calls for bans, prohibitions, book-burning, and worse. Yet, the correct, indeed the only rational, response to Lelyveld’s book is not a ban, but another book and yet more debate.

India’s central government, and even worse, the states, have cultivated a pro-ban instinct towards books, plays, paintings, exhibitions, films, even people. A community or segment of society has only to protest that a book or a person has hurt its ‘sentiments’ for the state to proscribe the book and deny the visitor a visa.

This kind of ‘tolerance’ is a low form of pandering to intolerance. As Amartya Sen put it, it’s merely the sum-total of different intolerances, all of which undermine free expression and impoverish society and public culture.

India has banned hundreds of films, books and exhibitions, from Nine Hours to Rama to documentaries by Louis Malle, James Laine’s book on Shivaji to Sahmat’s exhibitions on different versions of the Ramayana, and to magazines that print maps which don’t conform to the official versions of India’s borders.

India’s best-known modern painter M F Husain has been forced into exile by bigots for ‘defiling’ Hindu deities by painting them in unconventional ways. Hindutva zealots have attacked paintings at Baroda in an attempt to turn one of India’s finest art schools into a desert. The Indian state has persistently failed to defend these artists and their fundamental right to free expression.

Ironically, intolerance of dissent and difference has grown just as India globalises and opens itself up to new cultural influences. One would have thought that ‘Emerging Power’ India which aspires to become a knowledge-based society would be more welcoming of eminent intellectuals, scholars and scientists than of predatory multinational corporations, shady foreign universities out to make a fast buck, and other mercenary agencies. But it is not.

Recently, the government raked up a 1950s rule that requires organisers of international conferences to seek prior permission from central ministries. All participants must be cleared before they get a visa. This has become a major nuisance for universities and learned institutions, which often have to cancel worthy conferences meant to promote fruitful interaction between Indian and international scholars-researchers.

Last December, the government refused to allow the prestigious International Panel on Fissile Materials, comprised of well-known physicists and researchers, to meet in India. The Panel’s agenda is to promote a fissile materials ban, which the Indian government says it too favours. The refusal attracted sharp criticism from the world’s best-known science journal Nature.

Earlier last year, the government banned a conference on space-based weapons and nuclear disarmament which a non-governmental organisation was planning to organise. After 10 months of petitioning various ministries, the NGO was told it couldn’t hold it. So much for the government’s professed commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world!

The knee-jerk instinct to prohibit, ban, punish and censor speaks to a huge flaw in India’s democracy. For all its free and fair elections, India has failed to institutionalise a culture of free expression and scholarly exchange. Instead, it only lets crass commercial exchanges and corporate interactions thrive.

It’s a collective shame for this nation of 1.2 billion that it has never been far from imposing an intellectual straitjacket on dissenters and becoming a book-burning cultural backwater.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email:

Source :

No comments:

Post a Comment