The immature way in which we have reacted to the publication of Joseph Lelyveld’s book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, shows how superficial have we become as a society.  Without reading the text, one State Government banned the book and the other declared its intentions to do so. The Union Government, too, hastened to indicate that it would amend the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act to make disrespect to Gandhi an offence.

    The author was surprised and shocked, particularly because the material on which he had based his book was no other than Gandhi’s own letters published years ago in India itself.  Embarrassed  by the untenability of it views, Government of India saw wisdom in beating an early retreat.  The State Governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra are also expected to retrace their steps soon.  But the damage to India’s image has already been done, and our shallow approach to the whole issue stands exposed.

    Even if Lelyveld had read too much in between the lines of Gandhi’s letters to Hermann Kallbach, as a reviewer of his book has done, should we have worked ourselves to a state of frenzy?  Should we not have considered that Gandhi’s pre-eminent position in history rested not upon his views or practices with regard to sex but on the new attitudes, outlook and ethos that he had generated in the nation, the new relationship that he had built between politics and morality and the new design for life that  he had unfolded before India and the world? 

A truly democratic and tolerant society, as we claim ourselves to be, should have simply rebutted the nasty insinuations of the reviewer in a dignified way and reminded the people of those ‘upward and nearly divine’ attributes of Gandhi which had, in the words of his scholarly biographer, Louis Fischer, “made him a unique person, a great person, perhaps the greatest figure of the last nineteen hundred years”.

    We should not have also forgotten that, in the past, quite a few supercilious intellectuals had berated Gandhi with no holds barred. For example, Arthur Koestler, in his essay, Gandhi, a Revaluation, published in the Sunday Times, London, on October 5, 1969 and later on included in his book, The Lotus and the Robot , picked holes in almost all the ideas and ideals of Gandhi and highlighted what he considered their paradoxes and perplexities.  He concluded:  “When all is said, the Mahatma, in his humble and heroic ways, was the greatest living anachronism of the twentieth century; and one cannot help feeling, blasphemous though it may sound, that India would be better off today and healthier in mind, without the Gandhian heritage.”  Likewise, Michael Edwards, in his book, The Myth of the Mahatma, published in 1986, resorted to the exercise of looking only at the wrong end of the stick, pillorying practically every material aspect of Gandhi’s thought and action, and labelling him as a ‘maimed personality’.  But none of the critics of this genre was able to make any dent on Gandhi’s angelic image and standing in history.  There is no reason to believe that a run of the mill reviewer of the book would have done otherwise.

    It, however, needs to be noted that Gandhi was not infallible.  Sometimes, he was not able to live by the high ideals that he had propounded and wanted them to be followed in practice.  Take, for example, the support which he gave to the decision of the Government of India to send troops to the state of Jammu and  Kashmir on October 27, 1947 to repulse the tribal marauders let loose by Pakistan.  Earlier, in July 1940, when the Second World War was on, Gandhi, who was morally on the side of the Allies, issued a special appeal to the Britishers in which he said:  “I want you to fight Nazism without arms or with non-violent arms…You will invite Hitler and Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possession.   Let them take your beautiful island….You will give all these, but neither your souls nor your mind…If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them”.  But he did not give similar advice to his fellow country-men when it came to the invasion of Kashmir.  Instead, he warmly applauded the dispatch of the Indian armed forces to the State and wanted them to save it at all cost. He declared: “I would not shed a tear if the little Union force was wiped out bravely defending Kashmir like the Spartans at Themopylae nor would he mind Sheikh Abdullah and his Muslim, Hindu and Sikh comrades dying at their post in defence of Kashmir.”

    When Gandhi’s critics pointed out the contradiction in the stand taken by him on two different occasions, one in July 1940 and the other on October 1947, he countered, “I would be untrue to my faith if I refuse to assist in a just cause of any person or measure that does not coincide with the principles of non-violence”.  He elaborated:  “I am an opponent of all warfare.  But if there was no other way of securing justice from Pakistan, if Pakistan persistently refuses to see its proved error and continued to minimise it, the Indian Union would have to go to war against it”.

The validity of Gandhi’s counter notwithstanding, the contradiction in his stand could not be completely washed away.  In the face of cruel realities confronting the nation, he could not strictly adhere to his ‘absolute faith in non-violence’ and left a gap, howsoever small, between what he preached to others and what he could himself practice.  It was this gap which led Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman and Nations to observe:  “My affection for Gandhi and my knowledge that he was a great man were not impaired by the discovery that he was still a Hindu nationalist and an imperfect disciple of the Mahatma”.

In some respects, undoubtedly, Gandhi could not act as a perfect disciple of the Mahatma.  But what, in essence, has to be borne in mind is that the fundamental motivating force in his life had been a relentless pursuit of Truth.  Invariably, he attempted to move, in all earnestness, ‘from lower level to higher level of Truth’.  But the dark compulsions of the pitiless world around him caused too many obstructions in his way and he sometimes stumbled and hurt himself.  The scars of the few injuries here and there on his work and conduct should not make us oblivious of the great worth of a noble and elevating journey he undertook to show a new path to the morally sick world which had made the twentieth century as the bloodiest century in history and caused far more killings, terror and strifes than had been caused during the entire march of human civilisation.  We all need to pull ourselves out of the quagmire of our own shallowness and develop a balanced outlook.