They say one measure of a man’s greatness is the extent to which controversy surrounds him. By that yardstick, Mahatma Gandhi was a very great man indeed. In his lifetime, his insistence on sleeping naked with his nieces, his advice to the British to surrender rather than fight Germany and to the Jews to throw themselves off cliffs rather than resist Hitler, were flashpoints even if we have chosen to overlook or forget them.
Now, six decades after his death, Gandhi is in the news on the grounds he might have been bisexual and racist. To be fair, Joseph Lelyveld’s biography makes neither claim. But quotations from letters Gandhi wrote to his friend Herman Kallenbach which, incidentally, are part of the officially published collected works, possibly point in this direction. British newspapers have jumped to this conclusion.
I’m not an historian nor do I know enough about Gandhi to pass judgement. Instead, I want to raise a few, hopefully, thoughtful and timely questions. Let’s start with the bisexual bit.
First, does this matter? Would our opinion of the Father of the Nation alter, leave aside diminish, if we discovered he was bisexual? Like the rest of us, even mahatmas have a right to a sex life in private.
Second, can we ever know for sure? I would say no. People, including mahatmas, often choose to keep quiet about some aspects of their lives. No doubt, Gandhi was brutally open about his experiments with celibacy — including a wet dream in his late 60s! — but, as his grandson, Rajmohan, has revealed, he did not write about his passion for Sarladevi Chaudhri, around which, Rajmohan suggests, “Eros too might have lurked”. So it’s possible Gandhi also kept quiet about Kallenbach.
Third, is this a legitimate area of enquiry? It is for those who want to know. But there is also a deeper reason for saying yes. The sublimation of sex was a critical challenge Gandhi set himself. Therefore, by his own touchstone, we have a ‘right’ to know.
The allegation of racism is undoubtedly more troubling. Unlike a man’s sexual proclivities, which concern no one else, racist views do affect others and, if proven, would damage his image. Particularly in the case of a mahatma. But, that apart, there are, again, a few questions to ask.
First, can we deny that Indians are amongst the most racist people and usually look down on blacks? If, at an early point in his life, Gandhi was no different how much can we castigate him? Perhaps at the time the influence of his upbringing and society were greater than the force of his own thinking.
Second, even if Gandhi once held racist views, did he not, in later life, cast them aside and is that not something we should applaud? We can all be wrong but only a few, willingly and voluntarily, correct themselves and embrace different views. At the very least, that’s true of Gandhi.
Finally, if true, will all of this change how we view Gandhi? Will it throw into question the greatness of the Mahatma?
In my estimation, these ‘revelations’ do not diminish Gandhi. They humanise him and emphasise his incredible capacity to correct error and rise above morally-debased thinking. If anything, his achievements are the greater for this.
Gandhi was not a saint and certainly not a god. But he was a great man. He would be greater still if he was also sexually human and, at times, grievously morally wrong.
*The views expressed by the author are personal.