Friday, April 01, 2011

Mahatma Gandhi watch: India avoids adding insult to injury

Indian state bans controversial book about Gandhi, but government stops short of making insults to the leader a crime.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - April 1, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — A controversial new biography of Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi has kicked up a predictable furor in India, where assaults on free speech have become increasingly common in recent years.

It appears, however, that the government will stop short of making any insult to Gandhi punishable as a crime.

"It's a clear case of the undesirable deification that everyone does when it comes to someone like Gandhi, and also a lot of our other great men of the past," said Jai Arjun Singh, an Indian book reviewer. "[We have] this idea that he must be seen as a saint, not a human being who achieved extraordinary things."

Already this week, the Indian state of Gujarat banned the book, called "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India," following assertions by the local press that Joseph Lelyveld's biography claims Gandhi was a bisexual racist who left his wife for a German bodybuilder.

Soon after, central government politicians reportedly sought to make insulting the former pacifist leader and Indian symbol a crime. The harsh reaction was not surprising.

While India's muckraking newspapers and magazines ensure that freedom of the press remains one of the country's most cherished values, freedom of speech has been under assault.

A New Delhi court recently ordered police to file charges of sedition against novelist Arundhati Roy and Kashimiri separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani for making anti-India speeches at a conference on the Kashmir conflict. And Lelyfeld now joins a growing list of eminent authors whose books have been officially banned.

In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, a far-right political party, last year forced Mumbai University to remove Rohinton Mistry's "Such a Long Journey" from its syllabus, and earlier compelled the state government to ban James Laine's "Shivaji — The Hindu King in Muslim India."

Similarly, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi spearheaded a fight to ban Javier Moro's racy biography on her life, which she called "fictionalized." And despite its literary community's immense love for Salman Rushdie, India's politicians were quick to ban "The Satanic Verses" in an apparent move to court the conservative Muslim vote.

"This is a country where hundreds of thousands pride themselves on having copies of [Adolf Hitler's] 'Mein Kampf' in their houses and treat it like a management guide, and we're talking about banning this sort of thing," Singh said.

Earlier this week, Indian law minister M. Veerapa Moily said that the central government would move to ban Lelyveld's biography, telling journalists that the book is “baseless, sensational and heresy and denigrating to a national leader," according to local news reports.

And on Wednesday the Indian Express newspaper quoted sources in the law ministry saying that Moily was seeking to amend the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971 to make any action or gesture that shows disrespect to Gandhi an offense punishable as a crime. Moily later backed away from any legal action related to the book, saying, "My stand is that since the author has himself denied any adverse remarks on Mahatma Gandhi, no further action is required."

The current political furor stems more from sensationalist reviews than from Lelyveld's book.

"The word bisexual never appears in the book," Lelyveld told an Indian television station. "The word racist only appears once in a limited context relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set of attitude or history in South Africa."

Even a cursory dip into the biography reveals that it is on the whole a generous and admiring portrait of India's most beloved leader, written in a matter-of-fact style that could hardly be called salacious.

But in the passages dealing with Gandhi's relationship with Hermann Kallenbach (the bodybuilder), Lelyveld clearly invites reviewers to make their own conclusions.

Calling Gandhi's friendship with Kallenbach "the most intimate, also ambiguous, relationship of his lifetime," Lelyveld quotes Tridip Suhrud, a scholar, as saying the two men were a couple.

Lelyveld asks rhetorically "what kind of couple were they?" in the same passage that he quotes Kallenbach as saying that they lived together "almost in the same bed" and Gandhi as saying he destroyed Kallenbach's "logical and charming love notes" to him.

And later, after warning that "selective details" can "easily be arranged to suggest a conclusion," he launches into a long description of Kallenbach's "taut torso," then quotes at length a letter in which Gandhi tells the architect and bodybuilder, "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom," and reveals that cotton wool and Vaseline "are a constant reminder" of his absent friend, whom he wants to show "how completely you have taken possession of my body."

Lelyveld never uses the word bisexual. But he invites readers to think it, first with suggestive language, and finally with a second rhetorical question: "What are we to make of the word 'possession' or the reference to petroleum jelly, then as now a salve with many commonplace uses?"

Lelyveld concludes with what appears to be feigned ignorance.

"The most plausible guesses are that the Vaseline in the London hotel room may have to do with enemas, to which [Gandhi] regularly resorted, or may in some other way foreshadow the geriatric Gandhi's enthusiasm for massage...."

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