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Experiments with facts

The howling reactions to Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi has questioned the maturity of Indian nationalism and the credibility of our democracy, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2011 12:11 IST

Narendra Modi may never have banned Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul had the books editor of the Wall Street Journal been as discerning as his counterpart in the New York Times. The Manhattan dailies carried reviews on the same weekend, but these could not have been more different in style or substance. The Times reviewer, who has himself written fine books on India, judiciously assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Lelyveld’s approach, situated Gandhi historically, and — in the wake of the controversy that followed, this may be the crucial point — did not mention Hermann Kallenbach at all.

The Journal, on the other hand, gave the book to a British reviewer whose powers of judgement are such that he once spoke of Tony Blair as a latter-day Winston Churchill. An apologist for imperialisms past and present, who has defended water-boarding by the CIA and expressed solidarity with Boer racists, he used the platform to mount a character assassination of a great opponent of the British Empire. Quoting words and phrases out of context, he characterised Gandhi as a ‘sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist…’. Two paragraphs of his review were about Gandhi’s friendship with Kallenbach, described by the reviewer as ‘the love of his life… for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908’.

This review appeared on March 26; two days later, the British tabloid Daily Mail ran a story with the headline: ‘Gandhi “left his wife to live with a male lover” new book claims.’ Clearly inspired by the Journal story, it called Gandhi ‘bisexual’ and said ‘after four children together [with Kasturba] they split up so he could be with Kallenbach…’.

The foolish decision to ban Great Soul in parts of India was provoked not by the book itself, but by tendentious misrepresentations by Britons still not reconciled to the loss of their Empire. However, I write this from the United States, with a copy of Great Soul at my side. The two questions one must ask, in order of importance, are: How much of the book is devoted to Gandhi’s friendship with Kallenbach? And what does the book say about the subject?

By my count, Kallenbach appears on 33 of Great Soul’s 349 pages. I think Lelyveld exaggerates the significance of Kallenbach in Gandhi’s life in South Africa. In his book, Henry Polak appears only fleetingly, whereas Pranjivan Mehta is not mentioned at all — although these two men were easily as important to Gandhi at this time. This is compounded by the sin of anachronism, the tendency to assess male friendships of a 100 years ago through the lens of a progressive New Yorker of today. Lelyveld privileges things said now to the written evidence of the past. Someone in Ahmedabad tells him Kallenbach and Gandhi were a ‘couple’; someone in Australia claims the relationship was ‘homoerotic’. These remarks (likewise informed by a contemporary sensibility) should have been disregarded; what he should have perhaps laid far more stress on is a remark made by Kallenbach himself, where, writing to his brother in June 1908, he notes that ever since he met Gandhi, ‘I have given up my sex life’.

Lelyveld is stretching the evidence in claiming that Gandhi’s friendship (he uses the term ‘relationship’) with Kallenbach was ‘the most intimate’ of his life. The further claim that ‘Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man’ is even more tenuous. The fact was that Gandhi had to be in Transvaal to organise the Indians in that province. Kasturba and the boys stayed at the ashram in Natal, being visited by Gandhi as often as his work permitted.

The friendship between these two men was not sexual, not even ‘homoerotic’; it was, as Gandhi himself described it, that between brothers. While they lived in the same house, Gandhi’s commitment to brahmacharya was matched by Kallenbach’s own. Much later (although Lelyveld does not mention or perhaps know this) Kallenbach broke their common vow of celibacy by having a sexual relationship — with a woman.

Lelyveld’s arguments may be anachronistic, but his prose is dignified and restrained. Moreover, Kallenbach goes unmentioned on 90% of the book’s pages, where matters of social and political import are given their due. Indians, aware only of the misrepresentations in the tabloid press, need to ponder these words from the book’s last paragraph: “In India today, the term ‘Gandhism’ is ultimately synonymous with social conscience; his example — of courage, persistence, identification with the poorest, striving for selflessness — still has a power to inspire…”

One might thus reasonably view Joseph Lelyveld as the hapless victim of, on the one hand, reactionary British journalists, and, on the other, opportunistic Indian politicians, who seek to camouflage their own betrayal of the Mahatma’s ideals by proclamations of reverence to his memory.

Two of Gandhi’s grandsons — themselves writers of distinction — have urged the government to allow the book to be published and circulated in this country. What is at stake here is both the maturity of Indian nationalism and the credibility of Indian democracy. Are our heroes so weak that we need bullies masquerading as patriots to protect them? Is our democracy so fragile that we can’t allow free debate on individuals and processes? The Lelyveld case has put our national politicians (Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Prakash Karat — all of them) on test. The censorship of ideas, while congenial to Islamic theocracies, military dictatorships, and one-party communist regimes, sits strangely and uncomfortably with our democratic claims. The answer to a book is another book — not a ban.

( Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy )

*The views expressed by the author are personal.