India scrambles to bring relics home

Posted in India | 05-Mar-09 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Mahatma Gandhi's glasses seen at the auction house in New York on March 1.

NEW DELHI - It is just the kind of hype and commotion that Mahatma Gandhi, with his world-famous doctrine of non-violence and simple living, would have rejected outright.

The auction of some of Gandhi's possessions by a US auction house, including the trademark metal-rimmed glasses which he once said gave him "the vision to free India", has put the "father of the Indian nation" back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Among the humble possessions of Gandhi to go under the hammer are five iconic personal items, including the glasses, a Zenith pocket watch, a pair of leather sandals and a simple plate and bowl. The collection has a reserve price of between $20,000 and $30,000.

The sale has been organized by James Otis, an American collector, filmmaker and self-proclaimed peace activist. Otis has said that also up for sale is a sample of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes, and blood collected from the site of his assassination. He has claimed that the sale was hoped "to promote Gandhi's words, actions and to promote non-violence in any way we can".

The auction comes a week before the 79th anniversary of Gandhi, know as the "Great Soul", beginning his campaign of peaceful civil disobedience against British rule in India. Arguably the most pivotal figure in India's history in the 20th Century, he was imprisoned by the British four times before leading the nation towards independence in 1947. On January 30, 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic who could not forgive Gandhi for his religious tolerance towards Muslims.

Among Otis' other collections are items belonging to the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi of the democracy movement in Myanmar, US civil rights hero Martin Luther King and other prominent world figures known for non-violent struggles.

The sale of Gandhi memorabilia is scheduled to start on Thursday, at 3 pm US Eastern Time (1.30 am Friday Indian Standard Time), unless it can be stopped at the last minute by Gandhi's descendants and the Indian government, which has got involved despite a questionable record of maintaining monuments and bringing other works of art back home.

Following an uproar in parliament and public outcry by activists who have long sought to correct the wrongs of India's British colonial past - including the return of items such as the famous Kohinoor diamond - New Delhi wants the auction stopped.

Tushar Gandhi, 49, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, has welcomed the move by New Delhi to procure the belongings. He has called the auction a "grave insult" and said he would "move heaven and earth to get these items back".

Others have said that the Gandhi items have been "stolen" from India and should be brought back.

Tushar Gandhi has called on Britain to also return to India the Kohinoor (Mountain of Light) diamond, a 105.6 carat diamond gifted to Queen Victoria in 1850.

He heads the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, and has been quoted by a British paper as saying: "If the jewels of Windsor were held by an Arab sheikh, then Britain wouldn't really like that. I'd love to see it [Kohinoor] back in India. Returning it would be atonement for the colonial past."

In an unusual development, the Delhi High Court this week intervened and passed a stay order against the Gandhi auction, though experts have said that the court has no legal jurisdiction over the matter. The court order followed a legal appeal by a publishing house that claims to be the true owners of Gandhi's legacy, including the leader's possessions.

"Gandhi appointed us the legal heir. It's not a question of buying [the collection]. It belongs to us under Indian law," said Jitendra Desai, the managing trustee of the Ahmedabad-based Navajivan Trust, in Gujarat, the state where Gandhi was born.

However, the US auctioneers holding the sale, Antiquorum, say they have signed a contract with Otis and that the Indian court decision has no validity in America. A spokesperson for Antiquorum has said that they would not consider settling the items at a negotiated price and that India can bid for them through its representative.

The New Delhi government can take no chances of appearing indifferent to the sale, as a sentimental backlash could affect its chances in upcoming general elections, to be held in April or May. The government has said the items rightfully belong to the country and has launched an aggressive diplomatic effort in America to recover the items.

"The Ministry of External Affairs is going to take up the issue with the US State Department with the aim of stalling the auction," Tourism and Culture Minister Ambika Soni said.

Junior Foreign Minister Anand Sharma has said, "We have asked our embassy in Washington and consulate general of India in New York to do everything that is required through the bidding process or otherwise."

In 2007, India did manage to rescue a piece of Gandhi memorabilia - a manuscript of an article written by him - after convincing auctioneers Christie's to cancel the sale. Yet, given the commercial and private nature of such transactions, it is possible that New Delhi will not be able to put off the highest bidder in New York.

Despite Otis initially telling the US press that he would welcome any offer from the Indian government which "might not even have to be financial", he has since declined what he called India's "generous but small" bid for the items. He surely has his reasons to reject the Indian government - there are predictions that the hype surrounding the sale mean the items could now fetch up to $250,000, a price that would have astonished and possibly appalled Gandhi.

But in a letter sent on Wednesday night to the Indian Consulate General in New York, Otis said he would withdraw the Gandhi items from the auction if the government of India agreed to spend more on healthcare for the poor or support educational events to promote non-violent resistance, reported The Hindu.

He also said he would not only donate to the government of India the items scheduled to go to auction, but also loan additional items from his collection regarding other non-violent heroes from around the world.

But India's Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma said on Thursday that India would not enter into agreements and accept conditions on the possessions. "It goes against [Gandhi's] philosophy to have the auction of his memorabilia in this way, especially for a man who did not believe in wealth and materialism," he said, reported the Indo-Asian News Service.

There is hope, however, that Gandhi's personal effects will return home thanks to the financial clout of some prominent Indian Americans. Adding to the patriotic fervor, the wealthy Indian American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal has said that he and some of his friends will pool money to bid in the Gandhi auction.

"I would like to go to even to US$250,000-300,000. This is not big money, especially when you buy it among friends and give it back to your country - India," Chatwal has been quoted as saying.

Given the clout that the India now enjoys in America, as a strategic ally and business partner, hopes remain high that the Gandhi memorabilia will indeed return home.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at