Gandhi Used His Position To Sexually Exploit Young Women. The Way WE React To This Matters Even Today
By Rita Banerji:
NOTE: This letter is an excerpt from a collection of Gandhi’s letters which have been compiled into a book titled “Mahatma Gandhi’s Letters on Brahmacharya, Sexuality and Love” by Girja Kumar (Vitasta Publishing, 2011). More detailed citations and references on the chapter on Gandhi in Rita Banerji’s book “Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies,” [pages 265-281, Penguin Books, 2009].
It is a fact. Gandhi had young women in his ashram, some of them still teenagers, one of them his own grand-niece [Manu Gandhi], sleep naked with him in his bed at night. This was an aspect of Gandhi that I had not read about before, and it surprised me at first. I was researching for my book ‘Sex and Power’ which looks at the history of sex and sexuality in India, and it was important for me to investigate this further.
My initial tendency was to regard this as “gossip,” but then some of the biographies confirmed it as fact, but also hurriedly dismissed it as something that we all apparently should accept as the eccentricities of “great” men! That’s not a logical argument for me and so I began to dig into archives for more information till a complete picture emerged. And that picture upset me. I saw Gandhi as a classic example of a sexual predator — a man who uses his position of power to manipulate and sexually exploit the people he directly controls.
Most angering for me was reading about the psychological and emotional trauma of the girls and women who he used for his “experiments,” which is what he called these incidents. The word ‘psychotic’ repeatedly came up in various documents with regards to these women’s mental state. The women, most of who were in their late teens or early twenties [not surprisingly, given he could have ‘experimented’ with the older women or even his own wife!] were repeatedly described as depressed and weeping, and seemed to be completely in his control. Besides this, some of the archival references lead me to believe that Gandhi may well have been practicing the traditional, historic form of Indian celibacy which hinges on one thing only — and that is control of ejaculation. Everything else is permitted.
What I could not understand is why school texts and biographies have selectively edited out this information because it was a big and explosive aspect of the inner dynamics of the Gandhi ashram and its inmates for the last 10 years of Gandhi’s life. It eventually led to the partial break-up of his inner-core circle.
But Gandhi is long dead. So why should the naked girls in Gandhi’s bed matter today?
Well, because the issue goes way beyond Gandhi. What really matters now, and it matters deeply, is how we respond to what Gandhi did!
Today we like to believe that we are far more progressive in terms of recognizing and condemning the abuse of power by men for sexual exploitation and abuse. And yet, I repeatedly find every time I bring this up [for eg. in this article Gandhi to Asharam: Who Empowers the Sex-Crimes of Gurus?] most people’s responses are defensive and regressive!
But this is what surprised me most! Compared to our reactions and responses today, the people in Gandhi’s time seemed to be far more progressive! They not only recognized that he was abusing his position and power in a way that was unethical and depraved, but they outright condemned it, confronted it, and eventually forced him to stop!
On 16th March, 1947, Nirmal Kumar Bose, one of Gandhi’s closest associates wrote a letter to Kishorlal G. Mashruwala, another of Gandhi’s close colleagues, saying, “When I first learnt about Gandhi’s experiment in which a girl took off her clothes and lay under the same cover with him and he tried to find out if any sexual feeling was evoked in him or his companion, I felt genuinely surprised. Personally, I would not tempt myself like that and more than that, my respect for [women] would prevent me from treating her as an instrument in my experiment…”
N.K. Bose’s letter was only one of the many exchanges among Gandhi’s closest associates and friends in the first half of 1947, about this practice of his that angered and upset many. These included prominent leaders of India’s freedom movement such as Vallabhai Patel, J. B. Kriplani and Vinobha Bhave. Many of them confronted Gandhi directly, and others stopped associating with him.
This 1947 storm in the Gandhi camp was set off by R. P. Parasuram, a young man from Kerala who for two years had served as Gandhi’s personal secretary and typist and watched his personal affairs from close by. Like many students in India at that time, Parasuram too had idolized Gandhi and after his studies, had travelled to Gandhi’s ashram to live and work with him, and help with India’s freedom movement.
But two years after working with Gandhi, Parasuram quit the ashram and his job. Before he left he wrote a 16-pg long letter explaining his distress at what he had witnessed in Gandhi’s behaviour with girls and women in the ashram — which included other things besides his ‘experiments’ in bed. He said that as much as he had worshipped Gandhi, his conscience did not allow him to stay silent any longer. And that in order for him to continue, Gandhi had to concede to 5 of his demands [all of which dealt with Gandhi’s physical interactions with girls at the ashram] which he listed in the letter. [See the letter below.]
On 2 January 1947 Gandhi responded to Parasuram’s letter with, “I cannot concede your demands…Since such is my opinion and there is a conflict of ideals…you are at liberty to leave me today.”
Parasuram did leave as did some of Gandhi’s other close associates. But others, especially those who were in more senior positions as friends and associates, continued their pressure on Gandhi to stop.
One of the things that were a big issue was Gandhi’s hypocrisy and manipulation, to what seemed to many to serve his own ends. Gandhi had made an unwritten rule of celibacy for all the inhabitants of his ashram. Oddly, he would even make married couples take this vow because he believed this was central to his philosophy of non-violence. Sexual stimulation of any sort, he preached, evoked violence in one’s thoughts and behaviour. He would tell them that even touching each other was unacceptable. He made the life of one of his own son’s whose wife got pregnant, absolutely hell, angry that they had had sex when he had forbidden them to! Yet he was free to do as he pleased! He was so confident that he wouldn’t be challenged!
Swami Anand and Kedarnath in a question and answer grilling from 15-16 March 1947 shot off questions like “Why did you not take your coworkers into confidence and carry them with you [into] this novel practice?” and “Why do we find so much disquiet and unhappiness around you? Why are your companions emotionally unhinged?”
The Congress President J. B. Kriplani told him that he was simply, “exploiting human beings as means rather than as ends in themselves.”
N.K. Bose suggested this course of action for Gandhi: “… he should not allow Manu [Gandhi’s great-niece] to sleep in the same bed with him until he had tried enough to educate the public into his new way of thinking, or the public had got all the fact about him and clearly expressed its disapproval. Then he [can go]…back to his practice with the full brunt of his suffering for the opinion which he held right.”
Vallabhai Patel told Gandhi off to his face. He said what he was doing was adharma (immoral). In a classic, egotistical way Gandhi retorted to Patel by telling Balkrishna Bhave “for me Manu sleeping with me is a matter of dharma (moral duty).”
But under this onslaught Gandhi eventually conceded defeat, even if not willingly. He said he felt like a “broken reed.” His ego and narcissism had been broken by people around him who fortunately understood and did better than we do today!
This is the question that I’d like to ask everyone reading this. Why is it that hard to say, yes Gandhi, the hero of India’s freedom movement had been pedophile.
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