The Indian state of Gujarat has banned a new book about Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi in protest against its revelation that the Indian independence leader left his wife to live with a man. In a similar direct threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, there are calls to ban the biography in other states and throughout India.
Commendably, some of Gandhi’s descendents have opposed such censorship, calling for free and open debate. Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, responded to the Gujarat ban with the comment:
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.”
The book, Great Soul, is broadly pro-Gandhi, although not uncritical or sycophantic. Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former executive editor of the New Times, Joseph Lelyveld, it reveals Gandhi’s love for the German-Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach, when he lived in South Africa in the early years of the 20th century. They shared a home together and worked together politically on the non-violent resistance struggle in South Africa.
The evidence of Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach comes from letters between them, including Gandhi’s profession of love for Kallenbach.
“Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed…. How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”
Gandhi asked Hermann promise not to “look lustfully upon any woman.” The two men pledged “more love, and yet more love….(such as) the world has not yet seen.”
Historian Andrew Roberts comments:
Joseph Lelyveld has written a generally admiring book about Mohandas Gandhi, the man credited with leading India to independence from Britain in 1947. Yet “Great Soul” also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.
Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner and Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, said:
Critics of the book condemn the author for revealing that Gandhi loved a man. They say this is insulting to his memory and offensive to the whole Indian nation. What nonsense. His sexuality does not diminish his political achievements or his character one iota. Only a homophobe would take offence at the evidence that Gandhi had a same-sex relationship.
I speak as someone for whom Gandhi has been a great political inspiration. He wasn’t a saint but he was a very great man. Despite his faults and flaws, he played a leading role in securing Indian independence, forcing out the greatest colonial power in history – the mighty British Empire – by entirely non-violent resistance. Defeating the British and securing Indian independence by peaceful mass protest was a truly remarkable feat, which far outweighs his shortcomings.
Freedom of expression, including the right to express ideas that others may find offensive, is a fundamental human right. Bans diminish open debate and critical inquiry. It is the job of historians and biographers to search for the truth and publish what they find without fear or favour. Censorship is a sign of weakness and a threat to democracy.”