Why the Mahatma matters even today

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Justice Michael Kirby delivers the second annual Gandhi Oration at UNSW. RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA reports

He is well known as a skilled raconteur – and this time again, Justice Michael Kirby, lawyer, judge and social commentator, did not disappoint. Addressing a packed audience, the accomplished orator’s trademark courage and intelligence shone through brilliantly as he tried to answer the question of what Gandhi would do today, and whether his ideals are still relevant. The occasion was the second Gandhi Oration to mark Martyrdom Day, the day the revered Indian leader was assassinated, and was organised by the Australia India Institute at UNSW.
Mohandas Gandhi and Michael Kirby, both lawyers and advocates of human rights, do have a few things in common. Just as Gandhi won the hearts of his people as he led them to independence from the British, so Michael Kirby has won the love and admiration of his own countrymen as he urges them to think compassionately on a range of salient social issues.
If one was the Father of the Nation, the other is a National Living Treasure.
Kirby spoke on Gandhi’s position on a list of issues that hold special significance in his own life: women’s rights, climate change, animal rights and human sexuality.
The Delhi rape case of December 2012 that brought the citizens of India out on the streets, was bound to feature in the address. Justice Kirby outlined a similar case that took place in Sydney in 1886, reminding the audience not to get “too self-righteous about Delhi:  violence against women is endemic in the world”. He went on to appreciate the manner in which the law has taken its course in the matter: the setting up of two official enquiries, and the holding back of the recommendation of the death penalty, because “hanging does not deter or prevent such offences. It is the risk of detection and speedy and proper determination of guilt that does so”. And that, Kirby concluded, is what Gandhi would say about the case: he would condemn the brutality of the act and the disrespect for women it showcased, and then insist upon the due process of law.
And yet, Kirby pointed out, for a man who espoused ahimsa (non-violence), Gandhi did not hesitate to recommend violence in case of sexual attacks, writing, “God has given (woman) nails and teeth – she must use them with all her strength”.
Regarding climate change, Kirby recognized Gandhi’s doctrines of self-sufficiency and simplicity as tenets of an early environmentalism. (One famous Gandhi quote would have gone down well here: “The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”). And although Kirby dismissed as impractical Gandhi’s “extreme solutions” in terms of spinning his own cloth and grinding his own grain, the message of ecological restraint, Kirby claimed, came through loud and clear.
On animal welfare, another of Kirby’s recent passions, there was much common ground to be found. Kirby himself turned vegetarian a few years ago, and as patron of the animal welfare organisation Voiceless, he has been campaigning for better animal laws in Australia including legitimate farming and slaughtering methods. He recounted, to some amusement, Gandhi’s early attempts at eating meat (ostensibly to grow stronger and fight the British), and chastising himself for lying to his parents about it. And although Gandhi’s embrace of vegetarianism was for purposes of spiritual upliftment, Kirby’s support of it is to “protect the other sentient creatures that share the planet with us”.
Much has been written on the topic of Gandhi’s sexuality in recent years: his vow of celibacy, his abhorrence of birth control, his instruction of sex to young men and women in his ashram, and his “experiments” on sleeping arrangements involving young women – all of which Kirby found “other-worldly and disconnected with … reality”. Yet it was his somewhat detailed description of the alleged homoeroticism in Gandhi’s life that the audience will   remember most from the event. Of course, it was nothing new, taken as it was from the 2011 book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India by Joseph Lilyveld. In this controversial book banned in some parts of India, Lilyveld chronicles the relationship between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish body-builder and architect, revealed through letters. These letters, part of Kallenbach’s estate, are now held in the National Archives of India. Lilyveld inferred from the letters that the two had lived together “after Gandhi terminated marital relations with his wife”. The references to their “mutual love”, to portraits in the bedroom, to vaseline and cotton wool, and to “Upper House” and “Lower House” nomenclature led to such conclusions. A passionate gay rights campaigner himself – having come out in 1999 – Kirby took the opportunity to call for the Supreme Court’s repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code drafted by Thomas Macaulay in 1837, which outlaws homosexuality and stands valid to this day. The Delhi High Court – “a great, independent court” – already invalidated that part of the Code in 2009.
Interestingly, Lilyveld’s work continues to be the only source that makes the claims on Gandhi’s homoeroticism. Other works of Gandhi’s sexuality such as psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality and Mira and the Mahatma find no evidence of homosexuality or homoeroticism. Other analysts of the letters suggest that the loaded terms could not have been homoerotic for the time in which they were written.  Kirby himself concluded, “A century on, who can tell what Gandhi meant?”
There is also the fact that no mention of homoeroticism is to be found in Gandhi’s own writings – which is replete with honest accounts of other ‘indiscretions’ and ‘misdemeanours’ such as indulging his passions with his wife while his father lay dying in the room next door, visiting prostitutes on at least five different occasions (but being saved by ‘God’ in the nick of time each time), and indulging in non-contact sexual activity such as bathing and nude massages and lying next to young women. “My life is my message,” he said famously. If he had the courage to write with such complete honesty, surely the homoerotic episodes would have found mention somewhere as well?
In the end though, it is Gandhi’s great grandson Tusshar Gandhi that has the last word: “What does it matter if the Mahatma was straight, gay or bisexual? He would still be the man that led India to freedom.” He helped change the world for not only 400 million Indians in the 1940s, but also many more citizens of the world, even as the century ticked over.
Neville Roach, Patron of the Australia India Institute and organiser of the event, spoke glowingly about Michael Kirby’s speech. “It was a powerful piece of work, extensively researched and quite a balanced perspective on Gandhiji’s positions on a variety of issues,” he said on Indian Link Radio.
“Gandhiji himself embraced self-critical evaluation, as we all should, and would have looked upon Michael’s speech with tolerance,” he concluded.

Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.

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