Even as the Gujarat government on Wednesday banned the book on Mahatma Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld that has run into controversy for allegedly saying he was a bisexual and a racist, the Centre is now mulling a law that would make showing any disrespect to the Father of the Nation an offence punishable with a jail term.
Sources in the Law Ministry said the ministry had been asked to suggest amendment to the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, so as to make any action or gesture that shows disrespect to Gandhi an offence at par with an offence against the National Flag or the Constitution.
Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India quotes letters which suggest Gandhi had an affair with German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach, for whom he supposedly left his wife Kasturba in 1908. The book also indicates the Mahatma had a racial bias towards Black Africans.
Under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 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” can be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and/or fine.
Anybody intentionally preventing the singing of the National Anthem or causing disturbance to any assembly engaged in such singing can also be punished with imprisonment for a maximum term of three years under the Act. Any subsequent offence under the Act carries a minimum punishment of one year.
Confirming that his ministry was examining the need to amend the Act, Union Law Minister M Veerappa Moily told The Indian Express: “Mahatma Gandhi is revered by millions not just in India but across the world. 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 he Act.”
Incidentally, in 2009, the Supreme Court had turned down a plea to make it mandatory for people to show respect to Gandhi. The petitioner had sought directions for framing of guidelines/law to ensure that anybody showing disrespect to Gandhi didn’t escape punishment.