Gandhi Biography Causes Furor In India

Indian thinker, statesman and nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi  as a law student.

Indian thinker, statesman and nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi as a law student. Henry Guttmann/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

A new book on Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi has sparked a furor in India, prompting at least one Indian state to propose banning it.

The book itself hasn't been released in India yet, but politicians are reacting to a review that highlighted passages suggesting that Gandhi may have been bisexual.

That was too much for people who venerate Gandhi as the Mahatma, who pioneered nonviolent protest and led India to independence from the British Empire.

The proposed ban has also prompted many people to defend the author's right to publish.

Vijay Jolly, a spokesman in New Delhi for India's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, says his party is disturbed by what it has heard about the book. "If even a passing reference casts any [aspersions] on Mahatma's great personality and persona," he says, "then certainly we have a right to demand a review or a ban on the book."

The BJP in New Delhi has proposed banning Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, by Joseph Lelyveld.

The passages to which Jolly objects come from letters written by Gandhi to Hermann Kallenbach, with whom Gandhi lived in South Africa before World War I.

"Now, even a passing reference that Mahatma left his wife to live with a so-called German Jew bodybuilder attributes different assertions to that particular statement, which we consider to be derogatory in nature," Jolly says.

Lelyveld quotes Gandhi's letters to Kallenbach, which he says are full of strong expressions of love.

"Now if you think love has to be sexual, love between two men can only exist if it's sexual, then I guess this was sexual, but if you look at what the two men actually said, and at their efforts in their time together to repress any hint of sexual urges, I think you'll find that at least I don't suggest that it was bisexual," Lelyveld says.

Lelyveld is a former executive editor at the New York Times who worked as a correspondent in India and South Africa.

He says there's no news in the letters he quotes: "The passages that I quote that so offend people can be found in Volume 96 of the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi printed by the government of India and they've been in the public domain since at least 1994."

Lelyveld says the controversy in India was stoked by a review of the book by historian Andrew Roberts.

"The word got into play, I think, because of the coverage in a Wall Street Journal review that basically trashed Gandhi," he says. "[It] didn't particularly trash my book, but used some of the material in the book to trash Gandhi, as I think he used the term 'sexual weirdo.' "

Bhratiya Janata Party leader Vijay Jolly is garlanded as he comes out of Lord Hanuman or the monkey god's temple after taking his blessings for contesting in the state elections  in New Delhi on Nov. 11, 2008.

Bhratiya Janata Party leader Vijay Jolly is garlanded as he comes out of Lord Hanuman or the monkey god's temple after taking his blessings for contesting in the state elections in New Delhi on Nov. 11, 2008. Saurabh Das/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Saurabh Das/AP

Many people have come forward to defend Lelyveld's right to publish.

Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma's great-grandson, says the family opposes any effort to restrict freedom of opinion because Gandhi stood for freedom.

"And then on the pretext of protecting his honor, if these kind of draconian, anti-democratic measures are taken, they must be condemned and opposed," he says.

Tushar Gandhi also says that whatever his great-grandfather's sexuality may have been, it has nothing to do with his place in Indian history.

"He is known for a peace activist," Tushar Gandhi says. "He is known for a person who taught us that conflicts could be resolved by nonviolence, and the honesty and clarity with which he lived his life are the examples."

At least one state government controlled by the BJP, the western state of Gujarat, has already said it will ban the book if it's released in India. Another state, Maharashtra, whose capital is Mumbai, has said it's considering a ban.

Lelyveld says his publisher in India is going ahead with plans to release the book, and that the controversy hasn't hurt sales one bit.

Readers in India are already ordering Great Soul on the Internet, and Amazon says India accounts for 33 percent of its foreign sales.

Gandhi himself might have laughed at the fuss.

An editorial in The Hindu newspaper quoted a famous remark of the Mahatma to his followers, "I am of the earth, earthy ... I am prone to as many weaknesses as you are."

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