Banning opinion: What would Gandhi do?

Published: April 5, 2011

Modi is on a mission to destroy everything Gandhi stood for.

In the words of 16th century English author and philosopher Francis Bacon:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

In the 21st century, a section of Indian politicians want to add one more line to this sentence: some books are to be banned without reading and knowing the name of the author.

Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India has become a tool in the hands of a group of politicians who don’t know its full title or its author but want to ban the book because it insults Gandhi.

The campaign leader

Among the leading proponents of this campaign to proscribe the book is the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi.

Modi is on a mission to destroy everything Gandhi stood for. His name is an antithesis of secularism, an idea for which Gandhi remained committed throughout his life and sacrificed his life for.

By banning the book, Modi has insulted the father of the nation by turning against the very grain of the Gandhian philosophy- freedom of speech and expression.

Gandhi’s life was an open book for his followers so long he was alive. All his actions were within the sight of the nation – be it his experiments with politics or sex.

WSJ starts the debate

The book in question generated controversy after a review in the Wall Street Journal in which Gandhi is described as:

“a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him.

Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive ­intellectual, professing his love for ­mankind as a concept while actually ­despising people as individuals.”

The review also talks about his relationship with a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach in South Africa. It quotes letters Gandhi wrote to his friend after parting in an attempt to establish some homoerotic relationship between them.

The reaction

This book is still not available in India. The ban has been imposed on the basis of one review and self-serving politicians have started debunking a book – an action that Lelyveld says is shameful:

“In a country that calls itself a democracy, it is shameful to ban a book that no one has read, including the people who are doing the banning.”

“It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual,” explains the author.

But assuming the mantle of a saint and votary of political morality, the rightist Narendra Modi banned the book in Gujarat, the place where Gandhi was born.

Veteran Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud read the book and said:

“As we seek to ban the book on the ground that it constitutes insult to the father of the nation, we should remember that the book itself makes no statements of the kind which are attributed to it. But, that cannot be the sole ground on which the decision to ban or not ban a book rests. No civilised, democratic society can ban a book, however blasphemous or salacious. The only response to a book can be a book, a counter-argument.”

But the largest democracy of the world under the leadership of prudish leadership tries to scuttle the debate which is a crux and crucible of a mature society.

After coming under heavy criticism from the intelligentsia and the right thinking people of India, Union Minister Veerappa Moily who was earlier advocating a ban, has taken back his word.

A history of taboos

This is not the first instance of a book being the target of political class. Maharashtra still continues with the ban on James Laine’s book Shivaji – The Hindu King in Muslim India despite Supreme Court’s intervention against such a move.

Not long ago Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey was taken off from the syllabus of the Bombay University due to protests by the Shiv Sena over some unpalatable reference in the book against the Hindu fanatic group.

This kind of intolerance was also shown towards the famous painter M F Hussain who was virtually forced to abdicate his citizenship of the country.

In his latest book In -Tolerant Indian: Why we Must Rediscover A Liberal Space, veteran journalist Gautam Adhikari says that:

“…violent politics of forces on the right and the left have overshadowed the idea of a liberal, tolerant society that India’s founding fathers dreamed of, where many views would compete for public attention, where the motto ‘live and let live’ would be the nation’s guiding philosophy, and where India would be a liberal-democratic beacon for emerging nations of the developing world”.

It is ironic that a country that celebrates the Kama Sutra and the sexual freedom it represents feels threatened by a debate on individuals’ preference.

Whither freedom?

By banning this book, we negate our own liberal tradition.

Those who advocate the banning of the book are not trying to protect the reputation of Gandhi but are sullying the democratic image and reputation of the country. The freedom of thought and expression is core to this democracy.

We are still far away from such a situation where dissent is tolerated.

This is the second attack on Gandhi at his birthplace; the first took place in 2002 when the state deliberately forgot to adhere to secular values and allegedly allowed the mass murder of Muslim s. The second is curbing the fundamental right to expression.

Burning and banning of a book has not succeeded in destroying the ideas and truth enshrined in a work of art.

The likes of Narendra Modi need to be reminded of the dialogue between Rosseau and Voltaire:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.


Sanjay Kumar

A New Delhi based broadcast journalist who reports on national and international affairs. He is a contributor to the Asia Pacific based magazine, The Diplomat. He tweets as @destinydefier (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Kamy

    Excellent article, reminds of me of sucessful attempts in Pakistan to ban the book Military Inc by the then dictator Musharraf. The book was about how the Pakistan military had entered the corporate space and now holds it hostage while providing its own chosen few with oportunities. Companies like Fauji are in everthing from fertilizer to breakfast Cereal (Im not kidding).

    Freedom of opionion must be upheld however I understand the backlash. A similar book on Jinnah if printed in Pakistan would no doubt carry a similar response however that is the nature of the politicians and political workers in our countries. They dont like an opionion different from theirs sinc they mythoology that they base their election campiagn on might be damaged and they might actually have to do some real work rather than depend on dead poltical leaders to get them some votes on election day

    When this understanding developes in the people of a country you can be sure that they have transitioned into a more mature state.Recommend

  • morticia

    In his list of banned books, the author very conveniantly fergot to mention the biography on JINNAH by JASWANT SINGH……hmmm worlds biggest democracy having trouble to practice wht it so self righteously preaches….nothing new there ! so whts next !Recommend

  • Shahzaib

    Stanley Wolpert’s book on Jinnah was also banned in Pakistan despite the fact that it didn’t say anything against him. Recommend

  • morticia

    ur right abt that….not only wolpert’s book, there is a whole list of books that have been banned here…but than again we have never self acclaimed ourselves of being the biggest champions of liberty or freedom of speech…Recommend

  • Romi

    Politics and book wiriting are two different professions & let’s leave it to that…Recommend

  • NG

    I appreciate your article… I can also understand your reaction to Narendra Modi for banning the book without reading the title yet. However, i would have done the same what modi has done. I have a reason for that… In state (Gujarat) where Gandhi has been considered as a second great soul of Gujarati soil after “Krishna of Dwarka”, people “Bapu” (Gandhi) among the people. So it was necessary to ban the book and give a message that Gandhi was not that which has been described in a book.

    I am sure even modi will appreciate the book if he reads in person but just to stop spreading controversial debate (Which could be wrong) among the common people. It was a necessity. Recommend

  • Jeddy

    Wherever the freedom of expression is denied honest and true democracy does not exist and can never exist. Only when the people of a country can say whatever they like, in any way they like only then can there be a democracy. Former freedom fighters are worshipped – their names cannot be taken – they are called by the titles given to them. It is like conveying to others there is no need to continue to struggle for freedom any more apparently it has been achieved. People should be happy with the way things as they are and not expect anything more. The fight for freedom is an on going process and should continue.Recommend

  • G.K

    I also support banning of this book. “free speach and expression” doesn’t mean that someone will misbehave/portrait our leaders and we will tolerate it.Our culture also says “respect for seniors and parents”.These foreigners do anything they want.Last time they named a bacteria by our capital’s name…but LOL…nothing happened,no casuality,noone died.Democracy doesn’t say to cross ur limits.If someone was arrested because of this Obama remarks,then M.Gandhi is our father of nation.N.Modi did the right thing.He always does the right thing.Indian society is not in-tolerant,lots of examples are there to justify it.Does auther want me to give some example?? Recommend

  • G. Din

    It is futile to ban books. They somehow find their way to where they have been banned and perhaps quicker than they would have otherwise. Narendra Modi is proving to be a great leader as people from across the spectrum of public opinion praise him. I do, too. But this decision does not make sense and has been taken purely for political reasons. After all, Gujrat is not India and even if one state allows the book to the exclusion of all others, the whole idea of banning it locally is defeated.
    As far as the objectionable contents of the book are concerned, Bapu was our leader and shall forever remain so. That should not mean that we have to expect him to be God-like. He made a mark on the world in the area of humanities; no one can blame him for being human.Recommend

  • Ashutosh

    Jinnah by Jaswant Singh s freely avaiable in all the books stores in India.Recommend

  • ifesvr

    Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah was banned only in Gujarat state and that too less than a month as the Court passed a order to take it off.Recommend