October 2, 1869 – Mahātmā Gandhi:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
In case you might not know, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an Indian activist who was the leader of the Indian Independence Movement against colonial British rule of his country. Emphasizing nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the Unites States of America and freedom across our pretty spinning blue orb.
Mahātmā is not a first name, it is Sanskrit for “high-souled”, and it is an honorific given to him in 1914 that is now commonly used. In India, he is also called Bapu, meaning “papa”, and, indeed, he is considered the Father of India.
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was on his way to address a prayer meeting, when a Hindu radical Nathuram Godse shot him in the chest at close range. Godse put up no resistance and was arrested on the spot. Gandhi was carried into his house where he died.
Born and raised in a Hindu merchant family and earning a law degree in London, Gandhi first employed nonviolent civil disobedience as an expatriate in South Africa, in that country’s Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he began organizing peasants, farmers, and urban workers to protest against discrimination. He became the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1921, leading nationwide campaigns for social causes and for Indian self-rule.
Gandhi famously led fellow countrymen in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with a 250-mile march in 1930, and in calling for Britain to leave India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years in both South Africa and India. He lived modestly and wore the traditional Indian clothing and ate simple vegetarian food. He fasted for long periods as both self-purification and political protest.
Gandhi’s vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism was challenged in the early 1940s by a rise of Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of a chunk of India. In 1947, Britain granted India independence, but the British Indian Empire was already divided into a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to their new lands, but religious violence was on the rise. Instead of joining in the official celebration of independence in Delhi, Gandhi visited the areas in conflict. In the following months, he fasted to protest the religious violence.
Gandhi’s birthday is celebrated in India as Gandhi Jayanti, a nationwide holiday, and around the globe as International Day of Nonviolence.
Because most historians just love to de-gay influential figures, you might not know that Gandhi was gay, or at least bisexual, certainly queer.
His longtime lover, Hermann Kallenbach, was a Jewish architect from Lithuania. The couple lived together during Gandhi’s time in South Africa where he arrived as a 23-year-old law clerk in 1893, and where he stayed for 21 years. In 1910, Kallenbach, then a rich man, gave Gandhi his farm near Johannesburg. It was used as Gandhi’s famous “Tolstoy Farm”, a sort of retreat center. It was Kallenbach who named the farm after Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. In 1909, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy seeking advice. Tolstoy responded and the two continued a correspondence until Tolstoy’s death in 1910. Tolstoy’s last letter was to Gandhi. Abandoning a life of wealth, Kallenbach adopted the simple lifestyle, vegetarian diet and equality politics of Gandhi.
Much of the intimacy between the two is revealed in Kallenbach’s letters to Gandhi. Many have been published in Great Soul: Gandhi And His Struggle With India (2011) by Joseph Lelyveld.
At 13 years old, Gandhi wed 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji in a traditional Indian arranged marriage. They had four children together before they split up in 1908 so he could be with Kallenbach.
In one letter, Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach:
“How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”
“Your portrait, the only one, stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite the bed.”
Their nicknames to each other were “Upper House” and “Lower House”. My research doesn’t show that the names have something to do with sex positions.
The details of their love affair are found in those charming love notes Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach, whose family saved them after the architect’s death. The Indian Government purchased the entire Gandhi-Kallenbach Archives, claiming it was to prevent their auction by Sotheby’s in July 2012. They eventually ended up in the National Archives Of India. Gandhi had destroyed all his letters from Kallenbach in the early 1940s. Yet, in Gandhi’s memoir, The Story Of My Experiments With Truth (1929), he refers to Kallenbach as his soul mate.
By the time Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, Kallenbach was not allowed to travel because of WWI. Gandhi wrote him:
“You will always be you and you alone to me…I have told you, you will have to desert me and not I you.”
Kallenbach died in 1945 and Gandhi left this incarnation in 1948. Gandhi was cremated in accordance with Hindu tradition. His ashes were poured into urns which were sent across India for memorial services.
The Hindu religion does not accept homosexuality, but it was never illegal or a criminal offence in ancient Indian and traditional codes but was criminalized by the British during their rule in India.
Although same-sex couples are not legally recognized in any form in India, performing a symbolic same-sex marriage is not prohibited under Indian law.
But, last year, the Supreme Court of India unanimously struck down one of the world’s oldest bans on consensual gay sex, a groundbreaking victory for LGBTQ rights that buried one of the most glaring pieces of India’s colonial past. Chief Justice Dipak Misra said the law was: “… irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary”. News of the decision shot around India. People danced and kissed and hugged. In Mumbai, India’s pulsating commercial capital, human rights activists showered themselves with confetti.
Transgender people in India can legally change their gender without sex reassignment surgery and have a constitutional right to register as a third gender. There are protections for the traditional third gender population, including housing programs, welfare benefits, pension schemes, free surgeries in government hospitals and other programs designed to assist them. There are approximately five million transgender people in India.
The justices went further than simply decriminalizing gay sex. They ruled, LGBTQ Indians are to be accorded all the protections of their Constitution. Still, Gandhi is a sort of god there, and Lelyveld’s book is officially banned.
In Richard Attenborough‘s Academy Award-winning film, Gandhi (1982), Gandhi is played by Ben Kingsley and Kallenbach is played by Günther Maria Halmer.
The photograph below is of Gandhi, his secretary Sonia Schlesin, and Kallenbach. Kallenbach sewed the photo in the collar of his jacket before bravely joining Gandhi in England toward the end of World War I. He feared being arrested and the image seized. He was arrested, but the police never discovered the photo. Kallenbach never married.
In 2015, on Gandhi’s 146th birthday, Algirdas Butkevičius the Lithuanian Prime Minister, unveiled a statue of Kallenbach and Gandhi as a couple in the town of Rusnė.