David Blackburn

To ban a book

There is much howling and gnashing of teeth in India at the moment. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld has written a book about Gandhi, which, it is alleged, portrays Gandhi as having homosexual and racist tendencies.

When in South Africa, Gandhi lodged with a German body-builder and architect, Hermann Kallenbach. Lelyland quotes Gandhi’s in a letter to Kallenbach saying: ‘How completely you have taken possession of my body’ and ‘this is slavery with a vengeance.’ In his correspondence from that period, Gandhi referred to black Africans as ‘kaffirs’; Lelyveld mentions this contoversy also.   

Lelyveld insists that is not implying that the two men were lovers or that Gandhi was a racist, but he is no longer master of the book’s destiny in India. Homosexuality remains taboo in India: it was only decriminalised in 2009. That Gandhi might have held what we would regard as racist attitudes is also anathema to 21st century minds. The state of Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, has banned the book in protest at its ‘defamation’. The Indian government’s Law Minister, M. Veerappa Moily, has said that the central government will ensure that “baseless, sensational heresy denigrating a national leader” will never see the light of day.

The reaction of the authorities has promoted soul-searching in the Indian press and online. Some commentators support the move; others bemoan a hysterical reaction, arguing that a modern country does not ban books. The debate has hit India’s fevered internet discussion boards and blogs. One blogger says:

‘Even Kama sutra was not banned in ancient India!!! Banning is a Taliban policy and not good for any democratic country! The tragedy in India is even the election commission and police act as plaintiffs in defamation matters to prop up dynastic rulers.’

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