More fighting over Gandhi

I wrote rather innocently a few weeks ago about the New York Times review of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Gandhi, Great Soul. I wasn’t aware that, the same day I was writing, the Wall Street Journal published an incendiary review of the book by the British historian Andrew Roberts. (Roberts specializes in writing books about British military history. He has compared George W. Bush’s leadership in the invasion of Iraq to that of Winston Churchill in World War II—applauding both, of course—and has defended the use of waterboarding against “Islamofacism.” And more.) His review portrays Gandhi as “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist.”

Here are some of the Roberts’s points—many which are either already well known or more controversial than he allows:

  • “For all his lifelong campaign for Swaraj (“self-rule”), India could have achieved it many years earlier if Gandhi had not continually abandoned his civil-disobedience campaigns just as they were beginning to be successful.”
  • “In August 1942, with the Japanese at the gates of India, having captured most of Burma, Gandhi initiated a campaign designed to hinder the war effort and force the British to “Quit ­India.” Had the genocidal Tokyo regime captured northeastern India, as it almost certainly would have succeeded in doing without British troops to halt it, the results for the Indian population would have been catastrophic.”
  • “Mr. Lelyveld shows how implacably racist he was toward the blacks of South Africa. ‘We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs,’ Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. ‘We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.'”
  • “[W]hen he was in his 70s and close to leading India to independence, he encouraged his 17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her ‘nightly cuddles‘ with him.”
  • “Gandhi’s organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908.”
  • “Gandhi was willing to stand up for the Untouchables, just not at the crucial moment when they were demanding the right to pray in temples in 1924-25. He was worried about alienating high-caste Hindus. ‘Would you teach the Gospel to a cow?’ he asked a visiting missionary in 1936. ‘Well, some of the Untouchables are worse than cows in their understanding.'”

Gandhi’s native state of Gujarat has since voted to ban Lelyveld’s book. Unfortunately this seems to be mainly because reviews like Roberts’s allege that the book reveals Gandhi to have been to some extent homosexual. (Lelyveld apparently said to the Times of India, “I do not allege that Gandhi is a racist or bisexual in Great Soul. The word ‘bisexual’ nowhere appears in the book.” Plausible deniability at best, one gathers from the reviews.) But what if he was? Besides the homophobia implicit in the accusation—so what?

The most formidable response I’ve found so far comes from Michael Nagler of the Metta Center, a leading scholar and teacher of Gandhi’s legacy. I’m glad he did it. However, it only directly confronts one of Roberts’s claims—that about World War II. The rest seems to only mirror what it opposes. Roberts’s review is called “Among the Hagiographers,” and what Nagler gives us is hagiography. It describes Gandhi as “surely the greatest human being of the Twentieth Century, and perhaps more,” and then quotes an especially reverent follower of Bapu. While Nagler’s essay offers a welcome reminder of how completely Roberts misses the message and meaning of Gandhi’s life, it also gives the impression that criticism of Gandhi of any kind won’t be tolerated.

As an alternative, I’d offer for the record Gandhi’s own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The first time I read it, actually, I was shocked. There we meet a man who, while stubborn, is also intensely self-critical. He puts on display his rather unappetizing interest in dietary regimes, and writes of failures as well as successes. In the introduction, he explains, famously:

Far be it from me to claim any degree of perfection for these experiments. I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them.

Gandhi’s life was a work in progress, a process of development, a piece of humanity. He had flaws, and he knew it, and he improved on some of them. His earlier attitude toward black Africans, for instance, was not something he maintained later in life. (Hardly “implacably,” as Roberts puts it.)

Actually, I would say, there is even more in Gandhi’s life to complain about than Roberts mentions, if one holds him against some candle of perfection. (I once presented an academic paper suggesting how much his private life resembled that of Osama bin Laden—while insisting on how vastly their public contributions differ.) Gandhi wanted his life—the good with the bad—to be a benefit to the “experiments” of future generations. “Many other experimenters will find in them provision for their onward march,” he wrote. In this spirit, we should deal with problematic parts of Gandhi’s life not by censoring them, or denouncing him, or worshiping him, but by evaluating them earnestly and within the context of what good he did. How, then, can we do better? Roberts is right to object to hagiography, but demonizing isn’t the answer.

The Gandhian thing to do, it seems, would be somewhere in the middle. Confront these matters openly and directly. Give them what due they deserve, but no more. More to the point, allow our understanding of Gandhi’s life and legacy to deepen in the process. It’s all a reminder, after all, that nonviolence is for ordinary and flawed people like us, not just saints.

For a refreshing extended review of Lelyveld’s book, which offers some balance against Roberts’s polemic, see Anita Desai in the New York Review. It’s a start.