(Published in the Business Standard, April 5, 2011. Also read Salil Tripathi in The Daily Beast on India’s troubled history of limiting free speech.)
At the height of the uproar over Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Gandhi, one question deserved to be asked: what would we do with a negative, critical biography of a revered national figure? The answer, sadly, is dismal: we would probably ban it.
Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India is a respectful look at the philosophical growth and evolution of Gandhi’s philosophy. The current controversy centres around two minor sections in the book, and also around the larger question of whether we’re comfortable with honest examinations of national heroes as humans, not gods.
The biography deals briefly with Gandhi’s ambiguous relationship with the architect and bodybuilder Kallenbach; they exchanged letters calling each other “Upper House” and “Lower House” in which Gandhi testified often to the closeness he felt for his friend. Gandhi was open on the subjects of sexuality and relationships, detailing his struggle to maintain celibacy with the same exactness as his other experiments with truth, and his relationship with Kallenbach was one of a series of not easily classifiable relationships.
Lelyveld clarified that he had never directly called Gandhi bisexual or homosexual in his biography; the outrage felt and exploited in states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, which imposed premature bans on the biography, was misplaced. (A question few asked is why we should be outraged at the idea that Gandhi, or any other national figure, might be homosexual—or are we officially a nation of homophobics?)
The second issue remained largely unexplored in the Indian media, but in many ways is a far more uncomfortable matter—was Gandhi a racist? Reading many of the letters he wrote in South Africa reveals his open airing of his prejudices about the “kaffirs”; and Lelyveld raises the right questions here.
In both cases, the Lelyveld biography broke no new ground. The Kallenbach letters are in the National Archives; they are also readily accessible on the Internet as part of a broader collection of Gandhi’s letters from that period, the deep, complex affection between both men very evident. Gandhi’s letters where he speaks of “troublesome, very dirty” ‘kaffir’ convicts are also a matter of public record.
Lelyveld’s reaction to the proposed ban on his biography was the puzzled anger of the outsider unused to India’s bizarre political circus. For any author, a ban on one’s writing is the most unjust of edicts—it’s an erasure of one’s words, a brutal silencing of one’s voice. Lelyveld couldn’t believe that a country that calls itself the world’s largest democracy would countenance a ban of a book on the basis of biased reviews—but he had little way of understanding the history of India’s bans, which have been largely political in nature over the last two decades.
Lelyveld’s book has revealed nothing of Gandhi’s political thoughts or private relationships that was not already in the public domain. He has speculated freely, but not irresponsibly. Nothing Lelyveld has written about Gandhi is any more incendiary than Gandhi’s own letters and autobiographical works—but as many commentators have said, today’s politicians would ban Gandhi’s own words if they could.
What Lelyveld’s case demonstrates the ways in which book bans work in India. They are now largely symbolic; the courts have subsequently overturned almost every ban on a book issued by various state governments. They are almost always demanded by political parties, not by private individuals or the ordinary reader; the book ban is now roughly the same as the one-day fast, a token, banal gesture of protest.
They will also always mis-represent the book, so that Rohinton Mistry’s beautiful exploration of the common man’s Bombay and corruption in India can be called a book that contains swear words, and Lelyveld’s words can be twisted beyond recognition.
The damage done to the cause of free speech as states and politicians vie to be the first to ban a book is immense—but it is also almost secondary, because the politicians who seek book bans, from any party, are not thinking of the complexities of free speech issues.
So what does a book ban, of the kind the Narendra Modi government has sought on the Lelyveld book, mean in today’s India? At its simplest, a ban is just an opportunity for a political party to claim the mantle of protector—protector of a faith, of a community, of a national figure, of Indian culture. It is a no-cost opportunity; the small minority of readers in English is not considered a useful votebank, and banning a book offers immediate access to national television.
There are tiny signs that politicians may have over-used the book ban. The Central government and the Congress have backed away from supporting a ban on the Gandhi biography, and it is very likely that the state bans will be overturned by the judiciary.
So far, though, no politician has had the courage to step up and say what Lelyveld has said: this ban, with its disregard for the basic principles of free speech, is shameful. Nor have our politicians acknowledged another sobering truth: our record on book bans and our lack of support for free speech is more appropriate to a banana republic than a democracy.
Previous columns on book bans: