Gandhi biography discussing his sexuality is banned in some Indian states

Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld says reviews of "Great Soul," his book about Gandhi, are distorting the truth.

Did Mahatma Gandhi have a homosexual relationship? The suggestion that he did is causing some Indian states to ban sales of "Great Soul" by Joseph Lelyveld.

The salacious headlines keep on coming: “Gandhi left his wife to live with a male lover' new book claims.” “Book claims German man was Gandhi's secret love.”

Book Claims Gandhi Was in Love With a Jewish Bodybuilder.”

The lurid press coverage is behind the decision of several Indian states to ban – or consider banning – a new book about Mahatma Gandhi after reviews suggested the revered Mahatma had a homosexual relationship.

The state assembly of Gujarat, where Gandhi was born, voted unanimously to immediately ban Joseph Lelyveld’s “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India” with many other states like Maharastra keen to follow suit.

Because the book has not yet been released in India, the outcry and resulting bans are based on US and UK book reviews – some accompanied by headlines like those above – that suggest Gandhi had an intimate relationship with German-Jewish bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach.

It’s a scandalous implication anywhere, but especially in India where Gandhi is revered as a national hero, saint, and father of India’s independence – and where homosexuality still carries a stigma. Homosexuality was decriminalized recently in India, in 2009, but it remains a highly sensitive issue among the country’s socially conservative masses.

And the suggestion Gandhi had a homosexual relationship has sparked outrage in India.

“The depiction about Mahatma Gandhi made by Joseph Lelyveld deserves to be despised,” Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat State, wrote on his blog. “This shall not be tolerated under any circumstance.”

“Gandhiji was a respected leader and is known as the father of nation. He led the freedom movement of India. The government will initiate steps to ensure that the book is not published in the state,” Maharashtra Industries Minister Narayan Rane told the Legislative Council today.

“It has become a fashion to tarnish the image of great Indian leaders for self publicity and sale of books,” said Sanjay Dutt, spokesman for the ruling Congress Party in Maharashtra, according to the Associated Press. “The government should invoke a law to severely punish anyone who tarnishes the image of the father of the nation.”

But Mr. Lelyveld insists the only tarnishing happening is by headline-seeking reviewers unfairly portraying his book.

In the Wall Street Journal, conservative historian Andrew Roberts writes, “‘Great Soul’ also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that [Gandhi] was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist – one who was often downright cruel to those around him.”

For his part, former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld says the reviews distorted his book.

“I do not allege that Gandhi is racist or bisexual,” Mr. Lelyveld said in a statement. “The word 'bisexual' nowhere appears in the book.” He goes on to tell the Times of India, “The aim of 'Great Soul' is to sift the evidence and facts of Gandhi's life and discuss them in a careful, responsible and balanced way.”

In fact, Lelyveld isn’t the first to explore Gandhi’s sexuality. Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar researched Gandhi's sexuality in “Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality,” and later in “Mira and Mahatma.” Though he hasn’t yet read the book, Mr. Kakar told the Times of India that he “never discovered anything that the reviewers claim the book consists of.”

Regardless of the claims about Gandhi’s sexuality, the real loss if for Indians, many of whom, thanks to a few irresponsible reviews and headlines and their leaders’ overeager censoring, won’t be able to read a careful, nuanced portrait of their national hero and the father of their independence.

In spite of some potentially reckless reviews, many Indians are taking the higher road.

Ranjit Hoskote, a writer and general secretary of PEN India, which campaigns for freedom of expression, criticized the ban and said the media had misconstrued both Lelyveld's intentions and the nature of Gandhi's relationship with Kallenbach.

“You can't cite a worse example of third hand reportage and comment,” he told the Associated Press. “How can you ban a book you haven't read?”

Even Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan, weighed in. He dismissed the implications about Gandhi's sexual life and rejected calls for a ban, calling it “wrong from every point of view, and doubly so in the light of Gandhi's commitment to freedom of speech.”

“We need not mind the Lelyveld book,” he wrote in the Hindustan Times.

A response Gandhi would be proud of.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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