NEW DELHI // Any display of "disrespect" towards Mahatma Gandhi would be a crime under a planned legal amendment in a proposal that some scholars and authors are decrying as a violation of the right to free speech.
The debate over the proposed law was sparked by a new Gandhi biography, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, written by the former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld. The author has drawn upon archival material to reveal prejudices that Gandhi bore towards Africans during his early years in South Africa.
The book also highlights Gandhi's friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German architect and bodybuilder whom he met in South Africa. Several reviews of the book, in India and internationally, say that Mr Lelyveld suggests that the relationship might have been homosexual. "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom," Mr Lelyveld quotes from a letter that Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach. "The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed."
The book has prompted the law ministry to consider an amendment to India's Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971. The act lays down heavy fines and prison terms of up to three years for anybody who "burns, mutilates, defaces, defiles, disfigures, destroys, tramples upon or otherwise shows disrespect to or brings into contempt (whether by words, either spoken or written, or by acts) the Indian National Flag or the Constitution of India".
"Mahatma Gandhi is revered by millions - not just in India but across the world," the law minister M Veerappa Moily said. "We can't allow anybody to draw adverse inferences about historical figures and denigrate them. Otherwise history will not forgive us. That is why the need is being felt to amend the act."
Mr Moily has also said, however, that the central government would not issue a ban on Mr Lelyveld's book. The government of Gandhi's home state, Gujarat, has banned the sale, distribution and publication of Great Soul, and Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, called the book's contents "perverse". Narayan Rane, a minister in the state government, promised that the government would "take steps to ban" the book. The state of Maharashtra may follow suit.
In a public statement on Twitter, Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma's great-grandson, called the proposals to ban Mr Lelyveld's book a "greater insult of [Gandhi] than [the] book or author may have intended. I will challenge [the] ban".
Mr Lelyveld has defended his book and disputed reviews that said he implied Gandhi was racist or bisexual. "It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual," Mr Lelyveld said in a statement. "It does not say that he was a racist. The word 'bisexual' never appears in the book and the word 'racist' only appears once in a very limited context, relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set attitudes or history in South Africa."
Mr Lelyveld as well as others have pointed out that Great Soul hardly uncovers anything new in the story of Gandhi's life. Other biographies have written about Gandhi's famed experiments with his celibacy, in which he would sleep alongside young women to steel himself against temptation.
The material about the relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach has also been in the public domain for many years. Gandhi's own grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, devoted many pages to Kallenbach in his 2006 biography Mohandas. That book also notes Gandhi's placement of Kallenbach's portrait upon his mantelpiece, talks of the pair's "exceptional friendship," and quotes from their correspondence in which they promised each other "such love as … the world has not yet seen".
The new law under consideration has already begun to come under attack from supporters of free speech. "I think it boggles the mind," said Rajni Bakshi, the author of Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi. "What you're asking for is really a blasphemy law, except that you're applying it to a person."
Ms Bakshi observed that the reaction to Mr Lelyveld's book was a symptom of the intolerance for free speech in India and not of a culture of excessive reverence for Gandhi. She cited other, similar symptoms: India's ban of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses; the University of Mumbai removing from its syllabus the Rohinton Mistry novel Such a Long Journey; and the vandalism of a library in Pune, in protest against a book that some felt defamed Shivaji, a 17th-century king.
"Gandhi is just an excuse here," Ms Bakshi said. "If there's any wilful misrepresentation or errors in the book - well, that's what our libel laws are there for."