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A Little Self Control, Please

By Rajesh C. Oza Email By Rajesh C. Oza
June 2011
A Little Self Control, Please

Dear PMG:

Joseph Lelyveld’s book about Gandhiji has been banned by the Gujarat Assembly. According to Chief Minister Narendra Modi, “This publication defames the Mahatma and there is rising anger not only in Gujarat but in the entire country.” He goes on to say, “The perversion shown in the writings not only deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms but cannot be tolerated.”

How do you think Gandhiji would have responded to the book and to the ban?

Dear Friend,

“The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.”
  (M. K. Gandhi).

Having been victim to the British government’s branding him as a subversive and banning one of his most powerful books (Hind Swaraj), Gandhiji was not and would not be a fan of governmental censorship. Just as sedition laws were used by colonial courts to stifle dissent by those clamoring for an independent India, the modern Indian Penal Code suppresses free speech that can be considered an act against the state. Some members of the Indian government have taken liberties with the code in order to censor writing that insults their sense of decency or that of their constituents. 

In the case of Lelyveld’s book, the ban in Gujarat seems to be based on a Wall Street Journal review that was neither reflective of the book nor of Gandhiji. The reviewer slyly and selectively quoted Lelyveld to pursue his own imperialist (and perhaps supremacist) agenda. The review reads like the yellow journalism of an earlier age, a time when slander was a form of entertainment. Unfortunately in this Internet age, the review went viral, and poisoned the minds of people like Narendra Modi. The chief minister’s advisers would have better served him and the people of Gujarat had they paused for a moment and reflected on what Gandhiji might have done. 

First of all, Gandhiji would have read the book instead of all the Web chatter. Then he would have written a stern op-ed piece in the Journal. Being quite clever at using the best of all cultures, Gandhiji might have quoted one of New York’s leading intellectuals, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to dismiss the editors of the Wall Street Journal as second-rate: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” And then Gandhiji would have invited Joseph Lelyveld to his ashram and asked him to reflect on whether Freudian obsessions had caused Lelyveld to go a step too far in suggestively stretching the truth of Gandhiji’s relations.

A bit more swaraj by Lelyveld and the book reviewer might have saved us all the grief of censorship. But even with that lack of self-control, Gandhian dialogue could have enabled cooler heads to prevail. Instead, the government of Gujarat has found itself banning a book and passing along a stinking dead fish hidden inside a powerful newspaper.

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