India, 1942: In the end, the political demise of Mohandas Gandhi came with stunning speed. Until last week, he was the reversed Mahatma--the Great Soul-- leader of 400 million Indians in the drive for independence from British colonial rule. With the election of the Labour Government in Britain increasingly likely, chances never seemed brighter for the free India that Gandhi had sought for so long.
But by week's end, in the wake of newspaper accounts of Gandhi's sexual peccadillos, bizarre personal habits and mind-bending cult practices, his career--and perhaps Indian nationalism --lay in ruins. Those closest to Gandhi likened it to a Greek tragedy, a giant cut down by his own hands. "Gandhi's personal life was a political time bomb waiting to explode,' said one distraught associate. "Now it's finally blown up in our faces.'
Ironically, Gandhi set the stage for his demise through his own pronouncements on sex. His obsession began in 1885 when he learned of his father's death while in bed with his wife. By 1906, he had taken a much celebrated vow of celibacy. An extraordinary commitment, but even then Gandhi was angling for moral loopholes. "If for want of physical enjoyment,' he wrote, "the mind wallows in thoughts of enjoyment, then it is legitimate to satisfy the hungers of the body.' For years, supporters now admit, Gandhi had pushed the outer limits of propriety. "The man in the loin cloth, it seems, has thought a good deal about loins,' said one observer.
After years of such rumors, it was the specific nature of the latest charges, followed by other damaging revelations, that undermined his political base. The shock waves were felt throughout the British empire--and new questions were raised about how relevant a politician's character was to his work, and whether in the case of Gandhi, the Fourth Estate went too far.
A Spiritual Experience? The trouble began a week ago when the New Delhi Herald published a front page story reporting that Gandhi had spent the weekend with five attractive young women--aides in his nonviolent campaign--at his ashram in Sevegram. Meanwhile, his wife Kasturbai was 2,000 miles away at their mountain retreat in Kashmir recuperating from an illness.
Escorting them was Gandhi's aide, the movie star-handsome Jawaharlal Nehru. With his urbane charm and stylish taste in jackets, Nehru never had any pretense to celibacy. (His intimacies with Lady Mountbatten are infamous.) Campaign insiders said that they had long been alarmed by Gandhi's ties to Nehru, and several suggested their time together be cut back. "We told him to dump Nehru,' said one aide. "But the old man would just sit there and smile. He didn't see the storm coming.'
It was advice Gandhi must now wish he had heeded. New Delhi Herald reporters and photographers were hiding in nearby bushes, guarding both the front and rear entrances. Except for a breath of fresh air at 3 A.M., the women had spent the entire night with the erstwhile spritual leader. If the chronology was indicting, the photographs were positively damning. Wielding telephoto lenses, the Herald photographers snapped shots that seem sure to snuff out a political career. The scene: Gandhi and his cabal sprawled on his rope bed-- naked.
Late Sunday morning, a weary Gandhi finally spotted the Herald reporters and confronted them. The women were only there as an experiment in self-restraint, he insisted, and nothing sexual transpired between them. "True brachmacharya (celibacy) is this: one who, by constant-attendance upon God, has become capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they may be, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited. I have done nothing wrong,' Gandhi insisted.
The Indian public wasn't buying it. His explanations had become the issue of the campaign, according to a poll taken two days after the Herald story broke. Only 34 percent of those questioned believed Gandhi's claim that he hadn't had sexual relations with the women--and a scant 16 percent believed he hadn't been sexually excited. A mere 26 percent claimed to be disturbed by the incident itself; what bothered them, said 75 percent of India's citizens, was the appearance of hypocrisy.
But the questions kept coming. Every stop on his campaign swing turned into a media circus. A protest march in Dandi was cut short by a throng of reporters, barraging Gandhi with questions about his sexual self-control. A new low in political discourse may have been reached when a reporter for the Bombay Post asked during a sit-in, "Did you get an erection last weekend?' Although Gandhi was well within his rights when he responded, "I don't have to answer that,' some observers felt that the appearance of evasiveness further eroded his credibility.
Matters were only made worse when the Herald was widely rumored to be on the verge of publishing more damaging photos--of nothing less than unmistakeable signs of Gandhi's physical excitement. When a pack of enterprising reporters caught up with her at her sickbed, Mrs. Gandhi stuck by her man. She told them: "Honestly, if Mahatma told me that nothing happened, then nothing happened.'
More Revelations: Still, by week's end, the prospects for Gandhi's political recovery looked grim, despite his denials and counter-attacks. In the next few days, there were other newspaper accounts of Gandhi's celibacy experiments. The Bombay Post ran an insiders' account of life in Gandhi's ashram. Contrary to the image he had cultivated of a gentle, loving soul, the two-part series, "The Dark Side of Gandhi,' detailed the brutal regimen imposed on his followers. His 100-plus disciples, forced to live in primitive mud and bamboo huts, were awakened daily at a A.M. to eat nothing but a few crumbs of unseasoned vegetarian gruel and dry wheat. Weakened, they were subjected to long harangues on arcane religious topics. Eyewitness accounts were gruesome. "We had to spend hours on our knees chanting prayers and spinning cotton,' said one American follower who defected. "We were like zombies.' Cult experts say Gandhi had dozens of ingenious schemes to weaken his followers' ties to their families and strengthen his control over them. Their secret name for their leader: "Bapu,' or father.
The Post story was the final straw. In his political death throes, Gandhi made a dramatic appearance before his supporters--and stopped just short of abandoning his campaign for a free India. "I intended, in all honesty, to come to you this sunrise and tell you that I was leaving the cause. But, then, after tossing and turning all night, as I have through this ordeal, I woke up and said, "Heck, my goodness, no.''
Instead, Gandhi with his back against the proverbial wall reached deep into his bag of tricks and, like a cat with nine lives, pulled yet another rabbit from his hat: a hunger strike. Over the course of a fifty-year career, Gandhi had turned this familiar strategy into a crowd pleaser that could move the masses or pummel an Empire. "Under certain circumstances, fasting is the one weapon God has given us for use in times of utter helplessness,' said Gandhi defiantly.
No one doubts that Gandhi can go weeks on end without even a drop of chutney. But political analysts are doubtful that the man, once dubbed "Mr. Hunger Strike,' could make this latest gambit work. "Gandhi represents the politics of the past,' said Patreek Chardeli. "A new generation of Indians wants vital, robust leadership. I don't think a starving old man is well positioned to do it.' More ominously, other pundits said the political damage was too much to contain-- even with a high-profile play for sympathy. Davidahr Garthati, the media consultant credited with Gandhi's decision to abandon the suit and tie of his early barrister days and "go native' instead, was equally pessimistic. Garthati noted, "His celibacy shtick was crucial to the saint image he'd cultivated for all these years. The non-violence thing, the spinning wheels, the fasting--that was brilliant. But his celibacy really set him apart, made him genuinely holy. Without it, he's just another pacifist do-gooder.'
Political opponents moved quickly to capitalize on the gaffe. Columnist Robert Novakilli, a longtime Gandhi critic, lambasted Gandhi's hijinks from his nationally broadcast McRajan Group. "The real perversion is Gandhi's political agenda. For years, he and his pacifist pals have had two things in mind: tinkering with the salt tax and cozying up to Stalin.' And his most formidable rival, Moslem leader Muhammed Ali Jinnah, sought to subtly position himself to pick up Gandhi's fleeing supporters. "Family life has always been sacred to me,' he told reporters, standing outside his family's mosque with his wife and daughter. "I don't think it's my place to comment on the controversy surrounding some of those in the public eye. It's up to the Indian people to judge for themselves.'
And their judgment seemed harsh. Within a matter of days, the squalid controversy over Gandhi's private parts turned him from a national hero into a laughingstock. On his nightly radio program, comedian Charu Carson quipped, "Well, at least we know the Mahatma is big enough for the job of running India.' He added, to more laughter, "I guess he was really meditating his brains out this weekend.' Editorial cartoonists had a field day, as a bulging loin cloth quickly became the Mahatma's new trademark.
In the next few days more revelations came trickling out about other celibacy "experiments' he had been conducting since his forties, including one report of a pleasure trip down the Ganges with Nehru and two female assistants on the awkwardly named Holy Cow. The Post also revealed that at the end of each day, he had one of his attractive, young female disciples administer an enema, which he insisted was for "health' and "cleansing' purposes. "Gandhi gives as much as he takes-- even to total strangers,' said one Gandhi aide.
New Ground rules: Gandhi's sudden demise triggered an orgy of self-examination in the media. Did the press go too far? "At first, I agonized over whether we should risk tarnishing a great man's reputation with close-up photos of naked women and speculation about his sex life,' said Ved
Fiedleraba, who led the Herald stakeout. "But then I realized that the public had a right to know.' Fiedleraba reasoned that if there was the slightest possibility that Gandhi was lying about his celibacy, then that raised serious questions about his candor and his ability to negotiate with foreign leaders were India ever to become independent. "So, naturally, it was my moral obligation to set up camp outside his bedroom.'
Clearly, the ground rules have changed. Historically, the press has had a gentlemen's agreement with India's rulers. When Viceroy Lord Lillybottom himself brought a bevy of beauties to the Taj Mahal, the muckrakers of Madras looked the other way. But with the rise of Indian Nationalism and the decline of British sea power, the mores of Indian society have been loosened--and so have those of the press. Today, nothing is off limits, even enemas. Many wondered what's next: asking Jinnah whether he had violated the Koran's strictures against amorous relations with pigs or other unholy animals? But for now it was Gandhi who was caught in this whirlwind. This smiling man, from a more polite age, seemed oblivious to the new rules of his beloved India.
Whatever the press's ultimate responsibility, the longstanding doubts over Gandhi's character left India's nationalist movement in disarray. Behind the scenes, some Congress party operatives were privately relieved. "We feel betrayed,' said one. "Gandhi promised he would remain celibate, at least until India achieved independence. Now that he's gone, at least we can move on.'
Ultimately, Gandhi's fate hinged on those questions of character, rather than any moral revulsion. In her essay "Gandhi's Women Problem, Women's Gandhi Problem,' Sukai Lessardai voiced the concerns of many women wary of Gandhi's apparent philandering. "Whether or not he was celibate, his need to prove his spiritual manhood by lying with five naked women is an affront to the dignity and equality of women everywhere.' And as Willmed Schneidermanai of the Indian Enterprise Institute points out, "It's not so much the fact that he slept with these women or regularly indulged in enemas; it's that he showed such bad judgment in doing so. I think this raises serious questions about Gandhi's self-discipline and insensitivity to the appearances of impropriety --and finally about Gandhi's ability to lead a successful non-violent movement.'
Now the question is: Whither India? In his stead, there are other leaders who could possibly win independence for India--the Moslem Jinnah, or even Vallabhaai Patel--but neither has the stature and name recognition of a Gandhi. Non-violent disobedience seems a memory now. And nationalism itself is on the backburner. As the likely next Viceroy of the Raj, Lord Louis Mountbatten, points out, "If an entire nation could be led down the primrose path by this charlatan and hypocrite, the Indian people are not yet ready for independence.' Wise heads in India and Britain agreed, and with Gandhi's political demise, a tumultuous chapter in India's history closes, and calmer times lie ahead.
Photo: More than disciples?: Gandhi and two "aides'
Photo: Character flaw?: Gandhi stalked by questions about his judgment-- and candor