Gandhi, Lelyveld and the Great Indian Tamasha

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A few words today on the tempest brewed up this week in the social-media teacup over Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The controversy is over reports that the book depicts Gandhi as bisexual, particularly in its description of the Mahatma’s relationship with a German architect. Lelyveld he had treated the information very sensitively in the text and was surprised that he was caught up in what Indians called a “tamasha” — a spectacle. “I’m surprised to find myself at the center of one because I think this is a very careful book, and I consider myself a friend of India,” he told the New York Times.

The tamasha started the usual way: Maharashtra threatened to ban the book. This is no surprise; the nativist Shiv Sena is very strong in Mumbai, and the party periodically riles up its base with condemnations of books that have offended its sensibilities. Its most recent target was Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey, which it deemed insufficiently reverent of Maharashtra and Marathi culture.

Slightly more surprising was the state of Gujarat’s decision to ban the book. It is Gandhi’s home state — the site of his ashram and the historic Salt March — and has been ruled for the last decade by the Hindu nationalist BJP, which styles itself as the defender of traditional Indian values. However, it would be difficult to consider the near decade-long rule of chief minister Narendra Modi as an era of Gandhian virtue. Gujarat is now best known for two things: the horrific anti-Muslim violence of 2002, and the state’s subsequent reinvention as a business-friendly corporate haven — hardly the Gandhian ideals of communal harmony and asceticism. (One telling example: Mont Blanc famously had to defend its creation of a $25,000 fountain pen engraved with Gandhi’s image—but the brand is nevertheless the must-have status symbol among the Gujarati business elite. So much so that Mont Blanc has a boutique doing a brisk business in Gujarat’s largest city, Ahmedabad.)

The Congress Party, nominally the defender of secularism in India, also managed to score a few political points, the Indian Express reported:

“Sources in the Law Ministry said the ministry had been asked to suggest amendment to the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, so as to make any action or gesture that shows disrespect to Gandhi an offence at par with an offence against the National Flag or the Constitution.”

Law Minister Veerappa Moily backtracked almost immediately. In this case, being in favor of the ban before it was against it is actually an advantage for the Congress. It gets to play both sides — defender of the Mahatma and defender of free expression — in the course of one news cycle.

The whole thing has certainly generated a useful public discourse about the limits of free expression. India has a different philosophy than that of other liberal democracies. It upholds free expression, but privileges national harmony over the right of the individual to offend. But I think the Indian public is getting a little tired of this particular brand of controversy and the high-minded debate that follows. It seems to repeat itself so often and spares no one, from senior Hindu nationalist politicians like Jaswant Singh to progressive activists like Arundhati Roy. And inevitably, the ending is the same — a few political points scored, democratic values compromised slightly and the offending authors suffering little more than a touch of notoriety and the inconvenience of a media mob. (The rights of less prominent journalists and writers away from the big city spotlight are under much more serious threat.)

Not surprisingly, the Indian media have already moved on. India’s biggest Hindi-language newspapers led today with the latest census figures. The rest of the media is single-mindedly devoted to tomorrow’s Cricket World Cup final against Sri Lanka. A controversy that might look, on its surface, like a sign of India’s enduring reverence for the Mahatma reveals a sadder truth about the place of the Great Soul in India. As Lelyveld himself perceptively notes, he and Gandhi are little more than players in yet another ordinary political tamasha.