Jag Venugopal's Blog

April 10, 2011

The Gay Mahatma and the Intolerant State

Filed under: India — Jag @ 9:32 pm

Outing national leaders seems to have become something of a literary pastime. First it was Abraham Lincoln, who was described as gay [1]. Along comes Joseph Lelyveld with Great Soul [2], where he states that a close relationship existed between the Father of the Nation, and a certain Herman Kallenbach. Much of his writing is based on publicly available correspondence between the two individuals.

Even before the book is published, certain sections of India’s polity have a collective fit of apoplexy at the insult heaped on their “Mahatma”. The Chief Minister of Gujarat (incidentally an RSS man, against whom accusations have been made of staying silent while thousands of Muslims were butchered in 2002) took it upon himself to defend the Mahatma by banning Lelyveld’s book in Gujarat. Similarly, the chief minister of Maharashtra, a state known for its intolerance of the printed word [3, 4] proscribed the book without perhaps as much as reading a review.

 The irony is that India has completely given the Mahatma’s ideology a go-by, with lip service and some token spinning of yarn on his birthday on October 2nd being the only acknowledgement of his contributions. Yet they rush ferociously to his “defense” when the slightest question is raised about his sexuality, that too based on inferences from correspondence published by the government.

Just as in Abraham Lincoln’s case, The Mahatma needs no such defense. Either he is gay, or he is not. Either Mr. Lelyveld’s book raises the right inferences or it does not. In either case, there is no denying his contribution to India’s independence, or to his unique methods of resistance against foreign oppression.

However, India is in need of defense. Not from the likes of Mr. Lelyveld, but from those that seek to ban any expression which is contrary to their opinion. Indians ought to be free to disagree with Mr. Lelyveld, indeed if they so desire, to protest non-violently over it. But for the sake of the nation, India ought to be a country where there is tolerance for differing points of view. Its a sad day when those in power disagree with expression and speech by banning its free exercise. Down that path lies tyranny. Tolerance of differing viewpoints is the hallmark of a mature nation, much more so than any chest-thumping about becoming the next “regional superpower”.

Postscript: Being the parsimonious individual I am, I will read Mr. Lelyveld’s book when it hits the remainder shelves. Gandhi’s sexual orientation would not matter an iota to me — I will be looking to see if Mr. Lelyveld can cut through the fog of hagiography that pervades most writing about Gandhi, and present us the real man.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/09/books/review/09BROOKHE.html
  2. http://www.amazon.com/Great-Soul-Mahatma-Gandhi-Struggle/dp/0307269582/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
  3. http://www.indianexpress.com/news/shivaji-book-maharashtra-to-have-law-agains/645659/
  4. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/maharashtra-cm-backs-banning-of-mistrys-book/133435-40-100.html 

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