Fear and Loathing in Hindustan

Joseph Lelyveld, an ex-NYT Editor, has attracted a lot of flak recently from various quarters of the Indian society(correction: the Hindu Fundamentalist society), for a book he recently authored on Mohandas K Gandhi. Lelyveld’s book is the result of pouring over extensive records of correspondences that Gandhi exchanged with his friends staying in South Africa and Germany after he returned to India in 1914. His controversial find? That Gandhi might have had too much of a soft-corner for his German friend, Hermann Kallenbach, as the careful reading of the letters suggest, Gandhi was gay…at most, bi-sexual!

This is tantamount to blasphemy according to Indian standards. Very sadly, when it comes to unflinching, political commentary on national leaders in India, there is a silent code of self-censorship that a great majority of us exercise, all ingrained by overt acts of violence, threats and divine displeasure that is directed at outspoken citizens by politicians. The Congress as well as the BJP are deft at creating demi-gods of their senior leaders; and once the mythological heroes have mounted the tree-stumps, they develop a protective sheath around them, that manifests itself either in the form of swashbuckling, saffron-decked fanatics who swear by the BJP’s ideology of a Hindutva nationalism of a by-gone era, or a coterie of Ivy League-educated lawyers and managers who spew jargon to confuse and threaten the Indian electorate while keeping it content with the ‘prospects of a globalized world’ . Of course, then there’s those of us who choose to monitor ourselves, despite being better-off than the vulnerable majority, for no other reason than utter lack of moral courage.

Several people from the sports and entertainment industry, apart from the political class, have chosen to speak out on Lelyveld’s attempt to ‘besmirch’ the Mahatma’s reputation. Let us reserve our commentary here to the responses of three primary ‘persons of interest’, if I may, to the issue at hand here, and really try to analyze the problem.

Person of interest – Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the State of Gujrat

In Gandhi’s birthplace, which once held the promise to be the cradle of many ideas of an independent India, ideas which now seem to be relegated to the proverbial dustbin, Narendra Modi was quick to retaliate the very next day the book was announced in the Indian media. Modi spoke of how ‘saddened’ he was to watch somebody ‘humiliate’ a world icon who influenced people globally in the better hope of a peaceful world. As a self-appointed custodian of Indian values, Modi launched into his rhetoric of how Lelyveld had ‘offended’ Indian sentiments by ‘defaming’ an international icon. He then threatened on pursuing legal action against Lelyveld for ‘defamation’. Next step, he maneuvered his State machinery to ban the sale, distribution, publication and broadcast of the book, and even lobbied with the Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily on proposing a country-wide ban on the book, which shockingly, the Minister connived to. Modi’s famous for being a prompt decision-maker and tough administrator – like in 2002 when he and his friends from the BJP led a murderous mob in Godhra and committed  genocide against Muslims.

Person of interest – Manvendra Singh Gohil, openly-gay member of the royal family of former Princely State of Rajpipla

Manvendra’s ordeal of coming to terms with his own homosexuality and finally coming out to his family in his 40s is something that obviously made him speak up in this case, though not necessarily in its favour. He’s well-known for his contributions to the LGBT community in India; he established the Lakshya Trust in Gujrat which educates people of the LGBT community on HIV/AIDS, and has already added a hospice centre which caters to senior citizens globally. As India’s second-most famous openly-gay personality after Ashok Row Kavi, Manvendra spoke up against ‘irresponsible practices’ in journalism and how one needs to be ‘delicate’ when dealing with history while he also invoked that shaky bogey that is ‘public sentiments’.

Peeling the Onion – We couldn’t have asked for two better people for commenting on this ‘burning issue’, one diametrically opposite from the other, for reasons of morality, of course, and yet there is a disturbing conformity to their reactions.

I have a problem with the way this entire episode has shaped up for either ulterior reasons, or much less, with much greater prejudices and bigotry under the surface. What is Modi really saying when he ‘defends’ Gandhi against Lelyveld’s imputation of homosexuality to him? What is Manvendra being apologetic for when he begs writers to be more careful with history, lest they offend public morality? Is everyone missing the obvious here, that at the most Lelyveld could be guilty of perversion of history if his research proves to be less than authentic? Or are they? This collective-hurt of the majority of the society on ‘defaming’ Gandhi; what does it really say about us?

Allow me to quote from one of the best pop-culture references that is the film Philadelphia, where Joe Miller defends his client Andrew Beckett against a wrongful dismissal for being homosexual –

“Because this case is not just about AIDS, is it? So lets talk about what this case is really all about: the general public’s hatred, our loathing, our fear of homosexuals, and how that climate of hatred and fear translated into the firing of this particular homosexual”.

So the AIDS is the notion of a gay Gandhi in this story. How great is that?

The Delhi High Court’s judgment in the matter of Naz Foundation v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi & Ors. in 2009 as it read down a part of S. 377 of the Indian Penal Code that formerly criminalized consensual acts of sodomy between men, thus outlawing homosexuality, was a landmark judgement that spelled an evolution in India’s progress towards protecting individual freedoms and liberties. More importantly, what Chief Justice A P Shah and Justice S Muralidhar need to be celebrated for is their pronouncement that homosexuality is not a physical or psychological aberration, but in fact a natural expression of an alternative sexuality, and it was finally time to rid the  homosexual community of the notion of being unapprehended criminals and proudly embrace their identities. The Judiciary finally reconciled with the boastful history of sex in India as is depicted at the Khajuraho Temples. Hell, if the highly graphic erotica at Khajuraho is anything to go by, the Delhi bench would have to read down the entire S. 377, which currently forbids buggery and bestiality.

The point is, it has been two great years since another weight of guilt has been lifted from India’s collective conscience, but discriminatory sexual-profiling is still rampant. Consider the case of the Aligarh Muslim University Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. Siras was expelled in February 2010 because a group students on campus unlawfully recorded him having consensual sex with another man and showed it to the authorities at AMU. Having consensual sex in the confines of your own apartment apparently is a shocking scandal that no institute of great repute can tolerate, that merited Siras’ expulsion. It gets worse. The media kept reporting that Siras was with an auto-rickshaw puller when he was caught in the act. I’m not sure if it is the media or the AMU that chose this narrative, but it reeks of fascist classism. How does it matter if Siras was in bed with an auto-rickshaw puller or the Dean of AMU?  Siras died two months after the incident. Unlawful gross breach of privacy, discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and classist – looks like the AMU has blood on it’s hands.

"I spent two decades here. I love my university. I have always loved it and will continue to do so no matter what. But i wonder if they have stopped loving me because i am gay."

If Modi considers himself to be a guardian of Indian morality, he is sadly very delusional. He must not confuse his electoral victories as the the electorate’s declaration of him as a great leader. Sure enough, he’s turned around the developmental scene in Gujrat – revenue for the state by roping in big corporate, employment and an endorsement by Amitabh Bachchan(a big-time sell-out…very, very shameful!) – but does that compensate for all the gross abuse of human rights that his government is responsible for? He’s even barred from travelling to USA and Canada, in recognition of his roles in inciting riots and genocide against Muslims. But the US is contemplating a classic turn-around on this commitment as Modi is projected to be the next Prime Ministerial candidate by the BJP, and claims of an industrial revolution in Gujrat are having a Pavlovian-effect on Washington.

Truth is, against all likelihood of gay rights soon being recognized all over India, it drove a stake of fear right through Modi’s heterosexual-supremacist heart in coming to terms with the fact that soon he would have free men who love men walking unabashedly on the streets of Gujrat…unless he created an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance to send out a message, the message being that to be even considered gay, is a slap on the face, an abomination, a disgrace, a disrepute – hence the smooth transition from perversion of history to defamation in attacking not just Lelyveld’s book, but homosexuals as well. Modi’s words and actions are outright un-Constitutional, in that they’re violative of the freedom of speech and expression and the right to life.

I am also surprised at Manvendra’s timid reaction. Notwithstanding his contribution to the LGBT community and appearing on Oprah, I expected him to be the first one to point out the utter irrelevancy of the issue of defamation in this case, as anyone who brings defamation and homosexuality together is suggesting that homosexuality is a debasement, a lowering of reputation, something disgusting or something that shocks the conscience of society – all of which has been ruled against in the Delhi HC’s 2009 judgement, wherein it upholds homosexuality just as natural as heterosexuality. Where’s your gay-pride, Manvendra?

Person of interest – Tushar Gandhi, Founder of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, Grandson of M  K Gandhi

Tushar Gandhi has lived up to the reputation of belonging to a lineage that chooses swaraj over slavery, be it from the colonialism of the British, or the corrupted ideologies that Indian leaders now promote. I applaud him for reacting to the situation with the dignity and intelligence that we beg for in our national leaders, when he said ‘How does it matter whether Bapu was straight, gay or bi-sexual? Each time he would still be the same man who led India towards freedom‘.

Think about it – Would Leonardo da Vinci’s art be anymore/less beautiful had he been heterosexual? Would Elton John’s music be anymore/less wonderful had he been heterosexual? Would Edward Norton’s movies be anymore/lesser great had he been homosexual? Would Noam Chomsky’s political commentary be anymore/less thought-provoking had he been homosexual? Would Tina Fey be anymore/less funny had she been homosexual? Would Gandhi’s ideas be anymore/less revolutionary had he been homosexual?

Even as sixteen year old sexually frustrated teens, when we watched Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as part of our history lessons at school, for all his talk on civil disobedience and self-rule, we sniggered everytime Gandhi appeared semi-naked in the company of his female devotees…even worse, sleeping with some of them in the same bed to test his avowed celibacy. We told ourselves, ‘This is why you want to become great, so that one day you can fool them into sleeping with you under the pretenses of attempting to unlock some hidden human potential’. Let’s presume without admitting that Gandhi whored around with these women. Obviously that doesn’t make him the best husband in the world, but failing that, does he automatically also fail the test of a humanitarian who pushed the boundaries of peace like no one had attempted before? In effect, are character and chastity mutually exclusive ideas? It also brings up one of my favourite unresolved topics – Do great humanitarians make great humans themselves? (just by the way, the not so great part about Gandhi that i’m talking of refers to his difficult relationship with his wife, Kasturba, not his ambiguous sexuality)

Modi’s initial reaction, which might’ve well been shared by a vast majority, was that of ghastliness as he tried to make semblance of the book that dared to ‘disrobe’ a great figure; one who inspired many by demonstrating that peace can have an audience too. Let us try and imagine a homosexual Gandhi. I am not positing Gandhi’s sexual orientation, I am merely asking you to and try and reconcile the two seemingly divergent Gandhis – Mahatma and homosexual, in an attempt to appreciate the difference between character and chastity. Would the course of the independence struggle and post-independent India be any different had he been gay?

If only Gandhi was openly gay or bisexual, we wouldn’t be coming out on the streets today, now would we?

Notes – 

1. State of Gujrat declaring an unqualified ban on Great Soul – http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/04/01/gandhi-lelyveld-and-the-great-indian-tamasha/

2. Judgment of Delhi High Court in the matter of Naz Foundation v. Governemnt of NCT of Delhi & Ors – http://www.nazindia.org/judgement_377.pdf

3. Prof. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras’ ordeal as reported in The Hindu – http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/other-states/article113334.ece

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  1. You have done an interesting analysis of the sexual politics of this mess. The fact is, Lelyveld does not state or imply that Gandhi-ji was gay or bisexual; nor does he read too much into Gandhi-ji’s unusual interest in testing the limits of self control over his libido. Lelyveld does well to contextualize these episodes and, in so doing, to avoid disparaging interpretation. The outrage says more about India’s tragically intense homophobia than it does about Lelyveld’s treatment of the subject (which was quite benign) or India’s reverence for Gandhi-ji (which has been all talk and no action).

    Indeed, this whole controversy is upside-down. First, the controversy was stirred principally by the pseudo-review of Lelyveld’s book in the Wall Street Journal by Churchill worshiper Andrew Roberts, and not by Lelyveld’s generally adoring book itself. Second, neither Narendra Modhi nor anyone else in India has actually read Lelyveld’s book; it has yet to published there. Third, Modhi stands for absolutely everything Gandhi-ji opposed. This book banning is nothing more than the cheap populism of a master politician.

    There is an excellent interview with Lelyveld about his book here.

    My take on the disgraceful piece by Roberts in the WSJ is here.

    MBJ

  2. hi…i’m glad you appreciated a different angle on this one…everyone’s gotten the victim confused here!

  3. If I might –perhaps you need to contemplate adding a couple of images. I dont mean to disrespect what youve said; its very enlightening, indeed. Nonetheless, I think would respond to it a lot more positively if they could be something tangible to your suggestions. Keep it up, but put a little a lot more into it next time.

    • Hello Cheryl,

      thank you for your feedback. Could you suggest some ideas on what could be suggested as something tangible in support of what i’ve written?

      Thanks again, keep coming.

  4. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit a lot more than just your thoughts? I mean, what you say is critical and everything. But its got no punch, no pop! Possibly should you added a pic or two, a video? You could have such a much more effective blog if you let people SEE what youre talking about as an alternative to just reading it.

    • Hello.

      Thank you for your feedback. I do try and add as many pictures i think might be possible to allow the reader to feel interested.
      Also, what i’m trying to do for the blog is not just collate information from everywhere, but try and provide my perspective on things…which hardly leaves me a choice for videos!!!

      Thanks again, i hope you come back.

  1. November 30th, 2011
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