Auction of Gandhi's Belongings Sparks Outrage Among Indians

The bidding for some of Mohandas K. Gandhi's personal effects, including his distinctive metal-rimmed spectacles, is set for March 5 and 6 in New York.
The bidding for some of Mohandas K. Gandhi's personal effects, including his distinctive metal-rimmed spectacles, is set for March 5 and 6 in New York. (Antiquorum Auctioneers)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NEW DELHI -- Indians are expressing outrage over a New York auction that is set to sell some of the most personal belongings of India's great independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi -- the gaunt, bare-chested man whose ascetic life defied materialism.

The auction is a travesty for many Indians, for whom Gandhi is a godlike figure, and some in India's Parliament have called for the government to either stop the auction or put in the highest bid to get back the nation's iconic mementos.

The bidding for Gandhi's distinctive metal-rimmed round spectacles, his leather sandals, a 1910 sterling Zenith pocket watch, and a brass bowl and plate is scheduled for March 5 and 6 in New York.

Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence moved millions of Indians to rise against more than 200 years of oppressive British rule.

"By auctioning his things, we are going totally against what Gandhiji stood for. It is as if we are trying to buy a piece of Gandhiji," said Varsha Das, director of the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, using a suffix with Gandhi's name as a mark of respect. "He never believed in possessing things, except for a few things he wore. He was absolutely against materialism and commercialism. It is more important to disseminate his message, to learn something from his life, rather than just possess his objects," added Das, a member of a government committee that is examining the issue.

The items will be auctioned together by Antiquorum Auctioneers, with a starting price of $20,000 to $30,000. "The watch, the bowl and the plate were given by Gandhi to his grandniece Abha Gandhi while he was still alive. She, in turn, willed it to her daughter Gita Mehta," Michelle Halpern, the public relations and marketing manager for Antiquorum, said in a telephone interview. But she declined to reveal any of the sellers' names. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu radical and died in Abha Gandhi's arms.

Halpern said the eyeglasses were given as a gift to Col. Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III, who ruled a princely Indian state called Junagadh, when he asked Gandhi for inspiration at an ashram in 1930. "Gandhi said to him, these were the eyes that had given him vision to free India," Halpern said.

She said the auction house has letters of authenticity for all the items.

Indian lawmakers expressed bewilderment at how such precious objects of Indian heritage had landed in foreign auction houses.

In 2007, a similar controversy erupted when the London auction house Christie's sold Gandhi's last letters, written about two weeks before his death. The Indian government, under pressure from lawmakers, acquired the letters for an undisclosed sum.

This time, the auction has triggered a debate over whether the Indian government should bid each time the nation's cultural artifacts come up for auction abroad. Some have argued that if the government bids, it will encourage commerce in Gandhi's possessions. Others have urged wealthy Indians to help bring back the objects.

But Indian laws are often an obstacle for private parties that attempt to purchase cultural artifacts. Historical objects come under a "restricted list" category under foreign-trade rules, which means that only the government can import them. Special licenses are possible to get, but red tape makes the process long and laborious. Bribery is also a problem.

"The more rules there are, the higher the scope for bribe-taking by officials," said B.N. Uniyal, a collector and former journalist who wants the laws simplified. "It is irrational to say only government can bring back our heritage and debar or disincentivize Indian citizens."

But not everybody wants Gandhi's watch and glasses back in India. Some Gandhians say that India cannot have a monopoly on him.

"I do not agree that only Indians should have them. Gandhi belonged to everybody," said Ram Chandra Rahi, secretary of the National Gandhi Memorial Fund.

He added, however, that the objects should not go into private collections. "Some group or government body should ensure that it is displayed in museums for the future generations to see," he said.


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