When they’re not scamming the country, disrupting Parliament or schmoozing with businessmen and film stars at cricket matches, our netas fall back on their next favourite past-time: Saving Bapu.
We have a fine tradition of Saving Bapu. In 2009 liquor baron Vijay Mallya saved Bapu by coughing up Rs 9.27 crore for assorted memorabilia including his sandals and glasses. In 2007, the government threatened YouTube for a video of admittedly bad taste that showed Gandhiji dancing.
And, of course, we will Save Bapu from companies who use his name to sell overpriced fountain pens.
Now the Save Bapu movement is on full swing as this government mulls a law that would ban ‘insults’ to Mahatma Gandhi. The provocation comes not so much from a book but reviews of that book that conclude that author Joseph Lelyveld claims that Gandhi was both bisexual and racist.
Lelyveld is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported out of India and South Africa. He denies that his biography, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India reaches either conclusion. “The word bisexual nowhere appears in the book,” he says. He also denies calling Gandhi racist.
But so astute is our political class that it has raised the Save Bapu alarm on a mere reading of the reviews — the book is still unavailable in India — in such journals as the Daily Mail, Britain’s middle-market tabloid.
The first state to ban the book is BJP-ruled Gujarat. This is ironic because the Hindu right detests Gandhi nearly as much as the radical Left. Next to likely follow is Maharashtra, which has a long record in banning books from James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (the Supreme Court overturned the ban in 2010 but the book remains unavailable) to Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, which was removed from the Mumbai University syllabus last year under pressure from the Shiv Sena.
Gandhiji has no shortage of detractors in this country. His ongoing battle with Bhimrao Ambedkar is well-documented. In 2009, Mayawati created a minor rumpus by calling him a natakbaaz.
Historian Ramachandra Guha tells of how Naxalites in West Bengal brought down statues and how Kondapalli Seetaramaiah, founder of the People’s War Group, made a trip to Gandhiji’s parental home just to spit on it.
In recent times there have been serious attempts to understand the work, life, philosophy and evolution of this remarkable and complicated man. That we still feel the need to revisit Gandhiji is to pay tribute to his continuing relevance not only to Indians but to the rest of the world.
Not all accounts are flattering. British historian Jad Adams’s 2010 Naked Ambition claimed that Gandhiji was sex-obsessed. Much has been written of his somewhat bizarre views on celibacy, birth control, alcohol and women. Few, if any, in India follow his lifestyle. Post-1992, many values lie officially abandoned. So much for Saving Bapu.
To ban on a book, no matter to what extent it deviates from the officially permitted deified portrait, is to limit our understanding of the man who brought freedom to this country. We owe to future generations a complete picture of a completely human man — full of misgiving and doubt but great in spite of them.
Gandhiji’s own family is against a ban. Gopalkrishna Gandhi says his grandfather “is best protected by the strength of his own words”. Rajmohan Gandhi, another grandson, says a ban would be wrong ‘from every point of view’. And Tushar Gandhi, Bapu’s great-grandson points out: “How does it matter if the Mahatma was straight, gay or bisexual? Every time he would still be the man who led India to freedom.”
If India is to be a global leader then surely we must be more than an outsourcing destination or a market for consumer goods. We must be thought leaders and equal participants in a knowledge society where there is free exchange of ideas. We must demonstrate our maturity to absorb, debate and then, if need be, reject unpalatable ideas.
Banning books will not save Bapu. Reading about him, trying to understand his ideas and placing him in contemporary relevance will.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer, the views expressed by the author are personal.)