Gandhi and South Africa

Gandhi and South Africa

Why was Joseph Lelyveld’s history of Gandhi’s years in South Africa attacked by India’s Hindu right?


At the end of March, the Indian state of Gujarat banned the printing and distribution of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. The ban was proposed by the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, and it passed unanimously, as leaders of the Congress party vied to surpass Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in denouncing Lelyveld’s new book. The focus of the uproar was a claim made by Britain’s Daily Mail and, somewhat more subtly, by the Wall Street Journal, that Great Soul portrays Gandhi as a bisexual or homosexual. The headline in the Daily Mail blared: Gandhi “Left His Wife to Live With a Male Lover” New Book Claims. The “love of his life”—as the Journal put it—was a German-Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach, with whom Gandhi developed a deep friendship while trying out his ideas of nonviolent resistance in South Africa, where he lived from 1893 to 1914. Not to be outdone, Modi complained that Lelyveld’s book defames the Mahatma: “The writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.”

India’s law minister, Veerappa Moily, considered imposing a national ban on Great Soul under Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which empowers government authorities to outlaw books that contain material that breaches the peace or causes communal tension. But in April he announced that he had dropped the idea, explaining that Lelyveld (and sensible Indian journalists) had pointed out that Great Soul did not contain the statements about Gandhi and Kallenbach attributed to it. Meanwhile, in an interview published in an Indian online journal, Lelyveld charged that the Daily Mail and the Wall Street Journal had distorted his book in order “to trash Gandhi.”

Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, is the author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book about South African apartheid, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White (1986). The strength of Great Soul is its detailed coverage of the evolution of Gandhi’s views about political activism, caste and race during his stay in South Africa. Although Gandhi worked there for twenty-one years, returning to India at age 44, his life there hasn’t been as closely chronicled as his later years in India. Lelyveld underscores its importance, explaining how through work on a constellation of political and ethnic issues Gandhi developed the combination of intense spirituality and canny pragmatism he later used so effectively as a political leader in India. In South Africa, he came to grips with the need to forge an inclusive movement among Hindus that embraced both Muslims and dalits, or “untouchables,” a central lifelong theme of his politics, although one he did not always pursue to the satisfaction of dalit leaders in India. (The second half of Great Soul contains a valuable discussion of the tense relationship between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, the American-educated dalit who, as Jawaharlal Nehru’s law minister, became the leading architect of India’s Constitution.)

Above all, it was in South Africa that Gandhi became adept at the politics of civil disobedience, forging a nonviolent mass strategy that met with uneven success but gave him a fund of experience to draw on when organizing the mass satyagrahas of his India days. It was also in South Africa that Gandhi, under the influence of the ideas of Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, began to live a life of premodern simplicity, publishing his famous critique of Western modernity, Hind Swaraj, and adopting a simple village way of life. Finally, it was in South Africa that Gandhi took his famous vow of sexual abstinence, or brahmacharya, an aspect of his spiritual development that cannot be separated from the others so far as his personality is concerned, although the rejection of bodily desire is to many of his admirers the least appealing aspect of his career. (Gandhi disciples such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. chose not to follow him in that respect.)

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I wish Lelyveld had written an entire book about the South Africa period. As it is, Great Soul stints on background about crucial events and political figures: the Boer War, for example, or the enigmatic and complex personality of Jan Smuts. Depriving the reader of his expert knowledge of these matters, Lelyveld moves hastily on to India, where he is less sure-footed. Though he devotes more than half the book to India, he provides scant information for readers who have little or no knowledge of its history (there is no serious discussion of the Nehru family or the evolution of the Congress, for example, or the history of nationalist resistance before Gandhi); nor is there enough depth for readers who know the history. Key matters are treated with exasperating superficiality. Nehru makes an occasional walk-on appearance, and his long debates with Gandhi over village life—with Gandhi defending premodern simplicity and Nehru advocating for economic development as a more effective way to improve the lives of the poor—are omitted. Rabindranath Tagore appears as a “poet” who makes sporadic pronouncements rather than as the radical educator, philosopher, composer, choreographer, novelist and painter that he was, and whose ideas about nationhood formed India just as surely as Gandhi’s.

Lelyveld might have written an excellent book by expanding the discussion of South Africa and scaling back the India section. Rather than attempting anything like a general account of Gandhi’s political struggle (which the gap-ridden narrative of Great Soul does not provide anyway), he could have written three or four case studies of episodes that highlight what Gandhi learned from South Africa and how his thought and practice of activism matured after his return to India. After all, Lelyveld is at his best in Great Soul when writing detailed narratives that offer insight into Gandhi’s ability to use a politics of symbolism and moral principle to move masses of people to action. There are excellent accounts of the nonviolent protest Gandhi led in 1924–25 against the exclusion of dalits from the Vaikom temple in Kerala; of his interaction with Ambedkar in the 1930s over the direction of anti-caste politics, an issue Gandhi handled by combining moral purpose with political pragmatism; and of the march he led in 1946 to stop Hindu-Muslim violence in the Noakhali district of Bengal.

Less helpful is Lelyveld’s treatment of the history of Islam in India. There is no mention of the long traditions of mutual amity, syncretism and toleration between Hindus and Muslims dating to the Moghul Empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or of the Enlightenment Islam of many leading Muslims who allied themselves with Gandhi’s nationalist movement. One key figure who is brushed aside is Maulana Azad. A Muslim scholar who became a leader of Congress, Azad helped Gandhi organize the satyagraha at the Dharasana salt mines in 1930, a pivotal episode in Gandhi’s campaign against the British tax on salt. Later, as an opponent of partition, Azad became the first minister of education in the new nation. Azad is mentioned just twice, and very briefly, with no acknowledgment of his importance. In a truly bizarre lapse, Lelyveld suggests that the Ali brothers, Muslim leaders who worked closely with Gandhi in the 1920s, could be seen as distant spiritual ancestors of Osama bin Laden—a claim that overlooks important aspects of their lives, such as their break with conservative Muslims over nationalism and education; their role in founding a progressive school for children; and their extensive involvement in Jamia Millia Islamia, a university that from its outset included men and women, and Hindus and Muslims, as students and faculty. When people ask why there has never been a Muslim Enlightenment, the answer is that there has been and is one, in India, and the Ali brothers and their friends and descendants have been contributors to it.

The discussion of Gandhi’s close and loving friendship with Kallenbach during their work on civil disobedience in South Africa is also uneven. Lelyveld gives us a detailed account of the bodybuilder and gymnast, who took in Gandhi as a lodger in Johannesburg in 1908, and who later joined Gandhi’s commune at Tolstoy Farm. And Lelyveld quotes revealingly from Gandhi’s side of their decades-long correspondence, only recently made available through Kallenbach’s family, with Gandhi discussing matters ranging from political protest to diet, physical fitness and sexual abstinence. The intimacy of this correspondence assumes a singular importance in Great Soul that is not entirely justified by the facts, for Lelyveld says virtually nothing about the other intense and loving friendships in Gandhi’s life. Charlie Andrews, a Christian and one of Gandhi’s most influential political and spiritual advisers throughout his career, plays only a brief part. Although Lelyveld does quote Gandhi describing his feelings for one of the Ali brothers, Muhammad, as “love at first sight”—thus showing that Gandhi easily used the language of romantic love to characterize relationships of friendship and solidarity—he does not detail that other “love.” Nor does he write about Saraladevi Chaudhurani, the niece of Tagore with whom Gandhi contemplated a “spiritual marriage” in 1920. An accomplished writer and musician, Chaudhurani adopted the cause of Indian nationalism with zeal. In his comprehensive and meticulous, deeply respectable and respectful biography, Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire (2007), Rajmohan Gandhi puts forward evidence of a passionate erotic relationship between his grandfather and Chaudhurani, grounding his analysis in letters between the two. It seems that Gandhi ultimately found that his physical attraction to Chaudhurani made it impossible to continue the friendship: the idea of a spiritual love purified of all physicality could not be honored—on his side, at any rate—so he broke off relations, leaving her devastated. Significantly, Gandhi never broke things off with Kallenbach. Thus we may infer that their friendship contained too little eroticism to have troubled Gandhi, whose threshold of guilt was extremely low.

Though Lelyveld discusses the friendship in a vacuum, his account is not without insight. He emphasizes the commitment of both men to sexual abstinence and interprets their relationship as one of platonic love, perhaps with some submerged erotic component but utterly nonsexual. He carefully interprets one potentially suggestive detail—in a 1909 letter written from London, Gandhi says that “cotton wool and Vaseline” remind him of Kallenbach—as a reference either to enemas or massage, both of which were pivotal to Gandhi’s daily health regimen. Given Gandhi’s hypersensitivity about any lapse from ideal nonphysicality, even sexual fantasy would have been a torment, and no sign of such torment appears to have troubled his friendship with Kallenbach. The Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal accounts of the relationship are a crude distortion.

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What explains Narendra Modi’s crusade against Great Soul? Modi is a leading figure in the BJP and its allied network of social organizations. In 2002, after Muslim agitators were widely blamed for a fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat (though forensic evidence points, on balance, to a tragic accident caused by cookstoves carried on board the overcrowded train), Hindu mobs went on a rampage that resulted in the killing of more than 2,000 Muslims—most of whom were murdered far from the site of the train disaster—and in the rape of hundreds of women. (Because many of the victims’ bodies were torched by their assailants, a precise count of the number of fatalities is impossible to establish.) There is copious evidence that the rioting was planned by extremist Hindu groups that had stockpiled weapons in anticipation of a precipitating event. Propaganda was circulated during the pogrom expressing the wish to cleanse the state of Muslims. Police in Gujarat reported being told to sit on their hands, and some were even threatened with transfer or demotion if they did anything to put a lid on the violence.

At the time there was enough evidence of Modi’s involvement for him to be denied a diplomatic visa in March 2005 to enter the United States to address the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association in Florida. (Modi has a large following among Indian-Americans, approximately 40 percent of whom are Gujarati, and the creepy coexistence of religious hatred and pro-business policies is typical of his career.) The US officials who denied the visa referred to the State Department’s Religious Freedom Report, which found Modi complicit in the 2002 attacks and, more generally, to have promoted “the attitudes of racial supremacy, racial hatred and the legacy of Nazism through his government’s support of school textbooks in which Nazism is glorified.” Hitler’s role as a hero in Gujarati history books has been an international scandal for some time, but Gujarati officials have rebuffed all demands for change.

Subsequently, hidden camera interviews conducted by an enterprising Indian weekly, Tehelka, caught leading Modi henchmen implicating their boss and admitting they had carefully planned the attacks. A leader of the militant Hindu organization Bajrang Dal, after mentioning that his group wanted to kill all Muslims, described his actions in the following words: “There was this pregnant woman, I slit her open, sisterfucker. Showed them what’s what, what kind of revenge we can take if our people are killed. I am no feeble rice-eater…didn’t spare anyone…they shouldn’t even be allowed to breed…. I say that even today…. Whoever they are, women, children, whoever. Nothing to be done with them but cut them down. Thrash them, slash them, burn the bastards. Don’t keep them alive at all, after that everything is ours.”

The Bollywood movie Dev (2004), starring Amitabh Bachchan as an honest cop who does his best to save lives, chronicles the shameful episode in Gujarat and sends a message of mutual toleration and healing, albeit with too little attention to the organized role of the Hindu right. When I saw Dev in a cinema in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, the audience booed the Bachchan character and cheered for the villain, a deferential police captain (played by Om Puri) who incited the rioters, apparently complying with government orders.

The attitudes of that audience are so prevalent in Gujarat that Modi was re-elected twice, first in 2002 and again, after the Tehelka revelations, in 2007. Despite the overwhelming evidence of his complicity in the pogrom, he will probably never be brought to justice. Prosecutions for specific rapes and murders have been derailed by the intimidation of witnesses, and on June 30 of this year the Modi government admitted that it had destroyed all records of the events, citing a custom of destroying records after five years.

* * *

Why, then, is a thug like Modi defending the honor of the Mahatma? Although Hindu right-wing extremists opposed Gandhi’s policies of Hindu-Muslim inclusion and nonviolence during his life, and although one of their number, Nathuram Godse, assassinated the Mahatma in 1948, admitting his crime and offering a lengthy written “justification” that alluded to the importance of not including Muslims in the nation on an equal basis with Hindus, today’s Hindu right speaks with multiple voices, and their public face, as they attempt to win votes across the nation, smiles kindly on Gandhi. When I interviewed a leading Hindu right official for my book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (2007), he made sure that among the dozens of books on his shelf with titles in Devanagari script, there was one with Gandhi in big black letters staring right at me. Paying lip service to one of the nation’s founders while utterly disregarding his policies is just what you’d expect of the Hindu right. To win a national majority it cannot bank on religious hatred, even though that theme plays well in Gujarat; and for that reason Modi probably will never become a leader of the national party. So the Hindu right plays the pro-business card and puts the Mahatma front and center—meanwhile sending signals of a different sort to its stalwarts and sympathizers in India and abroad. (It is no surprise that Anders Behring Breivik expressed solidarity with India’s Hindu right in the lengthy manifesto he distributed on July 22, the day he killed scores of people attending a Labour Party youth camp in Norway.)

At the same time, the Hindu right has a long history of assaults on scholars who depict Muslims as anything but marauders and bandits. Romila Thapar, one of India’s most distinguished historians, has long stressed the complexity of Hindu-Muslim relations in the Moghul period, and has pointed out that in medieval India many Hindu temples were destroyed by rival Hindu groups, not by Muslims. The Hindu right has harassed Thapar for years in various ways, from threatening phone calls and hate mail to a vociferous campaign to persuade the Library of Congress to withdraw its appointment of her to the prestigious Kluge Chair in 2003. (The protest failed.) The attack on Lelyveld and Great Soul fits this pattern. The book’s detailed coverage of Gandhi’s sympathy with Muslims and their role in his career touches on a theme that embarrasses Gandhi’s defenders among the Hindu right; so does the book’s conclusion, which condemns the Hindu right for its role in the 2002 riots and contrasts its “brand of chauvinism” with the doctrine of Gandhi.

Nor is it surprising that the furor over Great Soul focused on sex. The Hindu right promotes a view of Hinduism that can only be described as Victorian. Smarting, perhaps, under the legacy of the Raj, which represented Hinduism as a scandalously sensuous and sexually adventurous religion, with soft and sexually receptive men whose polymorphous eroticism was seen by the British as a threat to the idea of “normal” manly domination and control over appetites and women, the Hindu right has reconstructed the key stories of the religion in ways that monotheize and desexualize the pantheon. Modi and his followers are extremely uncomfortable with any evidence of the intense interest in sexual pleasure that pervades Hinduism’s sacred and classical texts. After all, the Kama Sutra (The Art of Pleasure) is coequal with the Artha Shastra (The Art of Economic Management) and the Dharma Shastra (The Art of Morality): each text discusses one of the three arts of life that ought to guide us all. My colleague Wendy Doniger, a distinguished religious historian who has produced a new scholarly translation of the Kama Sutra, had an egg thrown at her in public in London in 2003 when she read a passage from one of the epics in which a central deity expresses nonmarital desire. That same year Macalester College’s James Laine published Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, which mentions but does not endorse a rumor that the revered seventeenth-century Hindu hero Shivaji might have been an illegitimate child, thus impugning the purity of his equally revered mother. The book was banned in India upon its publication for containing material that promotes social enmity, an interdiction lifted only in 2010 by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a Sanskrit scholar who had assisted Laine was assaulted, and mobs ransacked the archive in Pune, where Laine had done his research, destroying priceless manuscripts.

Above all, the Hindu right cannot countenance talk of sexuality that does not promote a tough-guy masculinity. Emory University’s Paul Courtright, in an exhaustive scholarly tome on the elephant-headed god Ganesha that draws on the research of several distinguished South Asian scholars as well as ancient sources, claimed that Ganesha’s childlike, potbellied figure and his love of sweets suggest a nonphallic sexuality that contrasts with that of his phallic father, Shiva. When a new edition of the book, in print since 1985, was published in India in 2000, Courtright received more than 1,000 threatening messages, and his house was put under FBI protection. The theme of anxious masculinity even cropped up in the Gujarat pogrom, where hate literature called for untying “the penises that were tied till now”: rape was regarded as a noble form of masculine self-assertion. The Hindu right now circulates images of Ganesha with a six-pack of hardened muscle and a sword in the air. Poor baby elephant.

In the context of these anxieties, what probably worried Modi about Great Soul was that it would create the impression that Gandhi, under the sway of a bodybuilder, was not a “normal” male. In criticizing Lelyveld, Modi portrayed himself as rallying to the defense of a national hero, a man who surely liked to penetrate and dominate women as much as any of Modi’s male supporters. (Never mind Gandhi’s obsessive pursuit of celibacy, which he always saw as freeing women from male demands.) Significantly, The Clash Within, which accused Hindu right groups of killing 2,000 Muslims, has received much less adverse attention from Modi and his ilk than books imputing to revered figures a childlike nature and receptive attitude to erotic life. Rape and murder are acts of which a “real man” may, evidently, be proud. The irony of invoking Gandhi in defense of such ideas turns the stomach.

* * *

Fortunately, India has other examples of male leadership that do real credit to Gandhi’s legacy. While one may quarrel with the policies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it’s clear that he exemplifies a dignified and nonaggressive style of masculine behavior, one that must make Americans wonder how he ever could have won an election. A leading Indian businessman called to a meeting with Singh told me how shocked he was to find the prime minister preparing tea in the kitchen, a task the businessman perceived as female. Moreover, Singh—along with his partner in government, Sonia Gandhi—has refocused political energy on the plight of the poorest, devising the Rural Employment Guarantee and the new Right to Food program. His chief economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, is well-known for writings on feminist and minority issues. Sonia Gandhi’s leading economic adviser, Jean Drèze, longtime author with Amartya Sen of works on hunger and public action, has chosen for years to live in a humble Gandhian manner. When Drèze taught at the London School of Economics in the 1980s, he slept on a bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Only after a morning shower in the university facilities, in emulation of Gandhi’s focus on the daily bath, would he teach his classes. In India Drèze lives with a similar simplicity.

As for the issue of homosexuality, here too India has left the Hindu right behind. In 2009 the Supreme Court tossed out the nation’s sodomy laws in a far-reaching decision that used a parallel between homosexuality and untouchability to condemn any type of stigma or disgust as a source of social hierarchy. The Mahatma would likely have been uncomfortable with the decision, given his rigidity in sexual matters, and if so he would have been wrong: the decision extends a concern with human dignity and equality to which all of Gandhi’s work is a testament.

Above all, India has bypassed Narendra Modi by energetically reasserting its commitment to free speech and a free press, in the refusal to ban Great Soul at the national level and in a general commitment to freedom of expression. Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar disagreed on some things, but on one point they were of the same mind: uplift for the poorest would be worthy of the dignity of the human spirit only if pursued within the context of constitutional rights for all and the zealous protection of civil and political liberties. The political vision of the Hindu right mars the insight that has made India, sixty-four years after its founding, a thriving democracy that honors human dignity in a way that its rival China has not.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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