Last year, the historian Madhusree Mukerjee wrote Churchill’s Secret War, a scathing critique of Winston Churchill’s role in and responsibility for the Bengal famine of 1943, in which up to three million people died.
She showed how Churchill ignored the looming food crisis in India and actively contributed to it. She even challenged Amartya Sen’s famed 1981 analysis of democracy and famines. Sen postulated that democracies don’t have famines because rulers have an incentive to get re-elected, as a result of which they must keep channels of communication open. Imperial officials don’t want to expose their rulers to information they don’t like; communication is restricted, and such rulers neither find out about the agony in the countryside—nor do they care.
Mukerjee took it a step further, arguing that Churchill was not only callous, he may have even intended the disaster.
Writing about Churchill’s Secret War in The Times, journalist and historian Max Hastings said British readers would find it “distressing”. But he also called it “sound” and “shocking”, even as he disagreed with some of Mukerjee’s political conclusions, including her assertions about Churchill’s role in the violence at the time of Partition.
The left-leaning magazine New Statesman, heaped praise on the book. Right-leaning The Daily Telegraph reported on it; The Independent had a positive review.
Curiously, no veteran of World War II, no politician of the Conservative Party, of which Churchill was the standard bearer and one of the most successful prime ministers, and no member of the House of Lords condemned the book. Nobody picketed book stores. Nobody asked for its ban. No effigies were burned.
Fallible: Gandhi’s life, Lelyveld says, was marked by a ‘tireless striving towards perfection’. Wikimedia Commons
It isn’t as if Britain has forgotten Churchill, or that he has fallen into disrepute. A few years ago, following demonstrations in London, some anarchists had cut grass and pasted it on the bald pate of Churchill’s statue, giving it a mohawk. Many were offended, and there were editorials condemning the vandalism. But nobody suggested that Britain needed to pass a law to outlaw dishonouring Churchill.
Now contrast that with what happened in India last week. Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, a biography of Gandhi. Lelyveld is uniquely qualified to write about Gandhi. He doesn’t bear the burden of being British; he is an American. His scholarship is without doubt: His account of apartheid-era South Africa, Move your Shadow, published in 1985, is not only a sobering account of the harrowing reality of apartheid; it also won him the Pulitzer Prize. He was a reporter in India in the 1960s, and has been an admirer of India’s valiant journey to become a democratic society after two centuries of colonial rule. Crucially, he understands how societies divide themselves—South Africa’s apartheid, the US in the 1960s, and the caste and religious divisions of India—and how people attempt to overcome those divisions.
And he has a deep interest in Gandhi, the man whose formative years were spent in South Africa, and who later implemented techniques developed there in India.
While Lelyveld admired Gandhi, he was aware of his limits—and of India’s limits in accepting his absolutist principles—which is why the book is subtitled Gandhi’s Struggle with India, and not just for India. Lelyveld wrote a nuanced interpretation of Gandhi’s life, which showed his triumphs and failures. And he revealed that the great soul was a man of flesh and blood, prone to make mistakes. What made Gandhi great was not that he was flawless, because he wasn’t, but that he was willing to admit the flaws, analyse them, to improve himself, in his “tireless striving towards perfection”, which he understood as truth.
The week the book was released, Andrew Roberts, a British historian who has said General Dyer was right at Jallianwala Bagh and that the British empire was a jolly good thing to civilize the heathen and the unwashed, wrote a review in The Wall Street Journal, where he used the Lelyveld book as his point of departure to hold forth his views about Gandhi: “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent, and a fanatical faddist” (thank you, but that wasn’t the exam question).
Roberts has the right to say what he pleases about Gandhi, but nowhere in his book does Lelyveld say anything that can remotely justify such assertions. Lelyveld does refer to Gandhi’s close friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, who gave Gandhi a plot of land near Johannesburg that Gandhi turned into his ashram of satyagrahis, and at his suggestion, named it after Tolstoy. But he did not hint that their relationship was anything other than platonic (and if it was, so what?).
Those were details that Roberts ignored. And Indian politicians didn’t want facts to get in the way of a good tamasha, a cheap entertainment show, a word Lelyveld remembers well from his time in India. And so Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who has taken his state further from the social, political, or economic vision of Gandhi, decided to defend Gujarat’s gaurav (pride) and banned the book. He hadn’t read it, of course, but that’s the nature of fundamentalists. Not to be outdone, the Congress opposition in Gujarat complied immediately, and promised to burn a few effigies of Lelyveld, taking competitive intolerance into uncharted territory—since they were expressing outrage over a review, but condemning the author of the book being reviewed.
At around the same time in neighbouring Maharashtra, Narayan Rane, the battle-scarred veteran who was once in the Shiv Sena, felt he had to defend the apostle of non-violence too. Alarmed, Union law minister M. Veerappa Moily didn’t wish to be left behind. Fortunately, there are some adults left in the government and someone who can actually read and think prevailed. Now the Centre is rethinking both a nationwide ban, as well as the lunatic legislation that was being proposed, which would have made denigrating Gandhi’s honour a punishable offence (in itself, that would be honest, for India has made Gandhi into a deity, to be remembered on 2 October and 30 January, and then mothballed).
You can make a virtue of necessity and claim that India is actually a robust democracy like the US’s, where a governor can say something supremely idiotic, but the checks and balances—of the press, the legislature, and the judiciary—prevent the equivalent of an Internet troll’s rant from becoming public policy. If only. Because in reality, author V.S. Naipaul was on to something when he said that India’s institutions were borrowed, while noting the speed with which the institutions folded during the Emergency. In the end, it is worth remembering that the books against which the left or right rant don’t get banned in the US; in India, they do.
Three of Gandhi’s descendants—Gopalkrishna, Rajmohan, and Tushar—have, in their own ways, expressed their disapproval over the proposed nationwide (and actual Gujarat) ban. Gandhi would be proud of his progeny. Churchill, on the other hand, would have the last laugh: Maybe India isn’t ready to be a democracy, as he used to emphatically say to that half-naked fakir. Which is why Gandhi’s struggle with India will have to continue.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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