Why ban the new Gandhi book?
The decision by the Gujarat government to ban a new book on Mahatma Gandhi, "Great Soul" should not surprise anyone. The moment stories appeared that the book had raised suspicions about Gandhi's sexuality, it was inevitable that the various authorities would jump in and try to be the first to ban it. Officials like nothing better than to excercise their power and proscribe books, films, plays etc which they deem offensive and "hurtful to public sentiments." Our rulers do not want the morals of the public compromised in any way and want to protect the poor junta from such corrupting elements.
The Maharashtra government, which knows a thing or two about banning books is also contemplating a similar action and in Delhi, the Law Minister Veerappa Moily has already given notice that his own views run in the same direction.
Interestingly, none of these leaders have read or even seen the book. It is yet to make its appearance in Indian bookshops. Their perceptions are based on reports in a couple of Indian newspapers, which in turn are based on a new story in The Daily Mail, an ultra-conservative newspaper in Britain which quoted extracts from letters written by Gandhi and interpreted them as showing his homosexual attraction to a friend. Not only that, Gandhi apparently was also a racist, according to The Mail because he did not care for the blacks in South Africa where he lived for 21 years till 1914.
Any sensible person would ask a few questions. Firstly, the letters are open to interpretation and do not in any way confirm his alleged homosexuality. They are written in a kind of century-old elaborate style which now sounds quaint. Secondly, assuming he had homosexual tendencies, so what? It is not a sin or a crime, not even legally. Thirdly, Gandhi himself has been transparent about his life, not only asking himself questions but also inviting questions about himself. He would have been unhappy at this kind of blatant censorship, since he believed in letting all points of view prevail. This is a point at least two of Bapu's surviving grandsons, Rajmohan and Gopal have made in newspaper articles in the last two days.
Most important of all, the critical issue is, why should books be banned? In the last few years, many books on Gandhi, Nehru, Sonia Gandhi, Shivaji etc have found disfavour with either their followers or politicians who have promptly banned them. Readers will be intrigued to know that Lady Chatterley's Lover, the classic by D H Lawrence is still banned in India as is Satanic Verses. An old 1960s film on the Gandhi murder, Nine Hours to Rama also is in the same category.
Are our people so stupid and childish that they cannot make up their own minds? Do they have to be protected? Can a small band of fanatics dictate terms to society at large? And does banning have a place in modern liberal societies especially in the age of the Internet? Is this how mature democracies behave?
These are very important and relevant questions. As citizens of a democracy, it is important that we have freedom to speak, to read, to write and to think. Today it is a book on Gandhi-tomorrow it could be on political discourse. This has a chilling effect on the democratic spirit. In the US, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech; we have Article 19 of the Constitition protects freedom of expression.
In this age of instant technology, how is such a ban going to be enforced. Even if I cannot buy Great Soul in a Mumbai bookshop, I can now get the entire book (and all previous banned books) on my iPad. Will the intelligence agencies spend their time monitoring the internet to see who downloads it?
In recent years, our perception of Gandhi has changed. We now talk openly about his sexual experiments, his poor relationship with his family and sons and even his political views. At the same time, our respect for him has actually increased; the younger generation thinks more highly of him than ever. Surely we can cope with the complexities of his character.
Incidently, the author of the latest book, Joseph Lelyveld has actually denied any such interpretation. He says the newspaper, The Daily Mail has completely twisted his book to draw wrong conclusions. That should have made the Gujarat government pause before it took its hasty decision. But that would be asking for too much-such good sense has rarely been shown by babus and netas. They are less concerned with higher thoughts of democracy and more with populist measures, or what they think are steps that will please the masses. Which is a pity, because I do not think that the aam aadmi would support the decision taken in his name.
This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.
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