A long time ago, in 1927 in fact, when a pro-empire American woman called Katherine Mayo wrote an India-damning book called Mother India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called the book "a drain-inspector's report". To Mayo, the drains were India, Gandhi said, but he added that Indians could read her book with profit.
Joseph Lelyveld damns Gandhi not with direct attacks but with an overdose of scepticism. He seems sceptical of everything about Gandhi. Whenever he looks at Gandhi's confrontation with his adversaries — the governments of South Africa of his time, India's British rulers, Jinnah, Ambedkar, Hindu militants, or whoever — the benefit of his doubt seems in each case to go to the adversary.
Thus, he accepts the Hindu extremist line that the decision to kill Gandhi was triggered by Gandhi's insistence, in mid-January 1948, on the payment to Pakistan of the stipulated Rs 55 crore, when it is a well-established fact that the conspiracy was hatched long before that issue ever arose.
Those who would like to believe that Gandhi was a Hindu casteist vis-à-vis the Dalits, or an Indian racist vis-a-vis African Blacks, or a pro-violence radical vis-à-vis the Empire, or a foe of Muslim rights, or an appeaser of extremist Muslims, can all find some supporting material here.
Lelyveld also throws in an innuendo, without offering evidence or his own conclusion, about a possible homosexual affair with Gandhi's close South African friend, the remarkable Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach. There is no doubt that Gandhi wrote uninhibitedly about his love for Kallenbach, even more warmly than what he wrote about other men dear to him like Nehru, Patel, Rajapopalachari, or Andrews. But Lelyveld himself seems to admit that friendship rooted in self-control was always Gandhi's goal, and one to which he hoped to win the talented Kallenbach as well.
To think of banning the book would be wrong from every point of view, and doubly so in the light of Gandhi's commitment to freedom of speech. In fact, extreme scepticism too should be welcomed, especially in the case of Gandhi, who wanted to live and die for the truth and wanted his life to be an open book.
But for scepticism's sake we must also ask why some strive to undermine Gandhi's influence in the world. I am not alleging that this is Lelyveld's motive. However, there is evidence already that those disliking some of Gandhi's stances – on uncompromising opposition to imperialism, for instance, or for friendship between the world's Muslims and non-Muslims — have gleefully used the Lelyveld book to mount an attack on one who not only gave his life for Hindu-Muslim amity but wrote as far back as in 1920 of the interest of empires "in the oil of Mosul".
Gandhi was a human being who, like all of us, lived with contradictions. But he united and emboldened Indians of all kinds like no one before him or after, and he offered the world a hope that the human conscience can triumph against long odds.
Today — more than six decades after his death — he serves as a reminder that irrespective of race, caste, gender, or religion, the world's peoples must and can live together in peace and equality.
For the long run, we need not mind the Lelyveld book. The more light thrown on Gandhi, the better. Did he not say again and again that he wanted to turn the searchlight inwards? Closer study of his life is only likely to show that whether the subject is caste in India, or race in South Africa, or Hindu-Muslim relations, or relations between a colonised people and those of an empire, Gandhi's heart was far closer to liberty, equality and, yes, fraternity, than his adversaries were willing to concede. Imperfect yet extraordinary, that heart can still speak to us.
Rajmohan Gandhi is a biographer and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. He is a research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois, US.