Joseph Lelyveld, a scholar who researched the South African Apartheid, has written a new book on Mahatma Gandhi titled Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His struggle with India. One has not read the book. One has read informed comment on the book. The book is in praise of India’s greatest son in modern history. It contains letters by Gandhi written to his close friend Hermann Kallenbach. Those letters are available in the archives. One British tabloid daily newspaper has interpreted, or misinterpreted, those letters to suggest that Gandhi’s affection for Kallenbach was unnatural. From certain recorded statements of that time the newspaper also concluded that Gandhi was racist with bias against Blacks. The author himself has rubbished these views. He has pointed out that nowhere in the book has he remotely stated that Gandhi was either racist or was not practicing chastity.
However the British tabloid’s sensationalism created the book’s notoriety and a fierce controversy. Indian politicians who most likely have not read the book swung into action. Union Law Minister Moily said the central government was contemplating a ban on the book. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi pre-empted him by banning the book in his state. The Maharashtra government is thinking of doing the same. Mr. Moily also said that the law may be amended to punish any insult to the Mahatma.
Two grandsons of Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi and Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and his great-grandson Mr. Tushar Gandhi, have strongly opposed a ban on the book. Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi opposed a ban on the book even though he felt that despite the author’s denials it contained an innuendo against the Mahatma. The fact is that the controversy created by the book has not arisen from what the author personally wrote, but from the archival letters of Gandhi which he quoted. Should the Law Minister also expunge from the records those letters written by Gandhi?
The views of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandsons may be considered of little consequence. They are after all merely his grandsons who possibly conversed with the Mahatma and saw him at close intimate quarters. It is the views of the leaders of our national political parties that count. They are custodians of the nation’s morals and represent parties that through criminal negligence allowed minorities to be butchered in Delhi and Gujarat. Gandhi spent his life protecting the rights and the safety of these minorities.
Providing a rationale for amending the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act to render any action or gesture showing disrespect to Gandhi punishable with imprisonment for a jail term, Mr. Moily said: “Mahatma Gandhi is revered by millions… we can’t allow anybody to draw adverse inferences about historical figures and denigrate them.” Would criticism of certain political decisions of Gandhi be considered denigration, or would that judgment be left to the arbitrary whims of the government?
Of the entire world’s political personalities in the twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi arguably was the greatest human being among them. However he was human. It is human to err. Gandhi committed grievous errors of political judgment. Remaining silent when the Congress Working Committee adopted the resolution to partition India as early as June 3, 1947, long before genocidal riots compelled mass migrations, was one such error. It was Gandhi’s greatness that he recognized his error. He sought to undo its consequences even though he knew it might cost him his life. As in the case of Subhash Bose, there remain mysteries surrounding the death of Gandhi which the government that presumes to preserve his reputation has never bothered to clear.
We know that Gandhi was advised by Lord Mountbatten not to oppose the results of the Partition. We know that Gandhi nevertheless obtained permission from Jinnah to spend his remaining years in Lahore to create accord between India and Pakistan. We know that he wanted the dissolution of the Congress Party and when he informed this to Congress leaders Pandit Nehru was most upset. We know that on January 28, 1948 Gandhi wrote that if anyone kills him the assassin should not be hated but be considered a madman. We know that he had finalized plans to march with 50 Punjabi refugee families staying in the Purana Quila Refugee camp on February 14, 1948. We know that Dr. Sushila Nayar had earlier been sent to Lahore to complete the arrangements for the stay of Gandhi and the fifty families accompanying him. We know that on January 30, 1948, two weeks before his intended departure he was killed by Nathuram Godse. We know on that very day Gandhi wrote his last Will and Testament urging dissolution of the Congress. We know that five attempts had been made earlier on the life of Gandhi. We know that Godse was under heavy police surveillance because he was staying in Bombay with Narayan Apte who owned illegal arms and was under police watch. We know that Narayan Apte accompanied Godse to Delhi to kill Gandhi which journey must have been under police surveillance. We know that after Gandhi’s death Jaya Prakash Narain accused the government of criminal negligence allowing Gandhi to be assassinated. We know that the government would have been in crisis had Gandhi who sought dissolution of the Congress gone to Lahore to undo the spirit of the Partition. We know that after Gandhi’s murder the Congress Party benefited hugely by making his life the brand image of the party worldwide. We know all this which is part of history.
What we do not know is whether there was a larger conspiracy behind Gandhi’s death and if so who was the mastermind.
That is something which the government should research and help the world to discover.
The government presumably will do no such thing. Instead the government intends a new law to make any “insult” to Gandhi a crime punishable by a prison sentence. If such a law does get enacted one fervently hopes that Veerappa Moily and Narendra Modi are prosecuted for insulting the memory of Mahatma Gandhi by favoring a ban of Lelyveld’s book. Gandhi’s life was spent experimenting with truth. The lives of those who presume to protect his reputation have been spent experimenting with the denial of truth.