Gandhi memorabilia auction: a wake-up call for India?

March 6, 2009

“Delighted and relieved,” is what the great-grandson of India’s iconic freedom hero Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi said once news came in that a collection of Gandhi memorabilia sold to tycoon Vijay Mallya will come home.

Over the last two weeks, the auction of Gandhi’s personal belongings has created uproar in India, with indignant citizens demanding to know why things came to such a pass.

Indians, who view the items as part of their national heritage, have said government intervention at a much earlier stage would have perhaps prevented the last minute dramatic build-up over the bidding.

Seller James Otis’ last minute change of heart to withdraw the items — Gandhi’s trademark wire-rimmed glasses, leather sandals, a pocket watch and a metal bowl and plate — failed and the auction went ahead as scheduled.

The one thing the controversial auction brought to light is the need for a clear mandate to bring home items of national heritage, spread out all over the world, in possession of collectors or individuals, before it escalates into a full-scale commercial ball game.

The interest generated over merely five of Gandhi’s items of daily use drove its price over the last two weeks to a staggering $1.8 million from the reserve price of $20,000 to $30,000.

Here’s the thing.

A man, popularly called the “Mahatma”, who himself shunned material possessions and believed in simple living, has given away in his lifetime many personal items to people he thought upheld his principles.

It may prove to be a monumental task to track all individuals or organizations in possession of Gandhi memorabilia and bring them back to the country to display in a museum. But it must be done if the government wishes to prevent them from appearing time and time again at auction houses.

“There is really no record… there are unthinkable numbers of people who have been in contact with the Father of the Nation over the long span of 78 years.

It is almost an impossible task to have an inventory,” minister for tourism and culture Ambika Soni said at a press conference hours after the auction.

She said the government has put in place a small group constituting leading Gandhians and instructed its missions across the world to keep an eye open for anyone coming forward with items connected with Gandhi.

Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi said all historical heritage must be protected.

“It’s not just about Bapu’s (as Mahatma Gandhi was affectionately called) personal items, but I think it’s time that the government formulated a comprehensive law to protect our national heritage.”

The Director of the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi said the auction might have set a dangerous precedent.

“Gandhiji wrote thousands of letters and gifted (some of his belongings) to people. Once you open up this kind of buying and selling, then you can never know in future if something is original or fake or a replica,” said Varsha Das, who is part of a committee set up by the culture ministry for looking at items that come up for sale and auction.

Is this then a wake-up call for India to protect its national heritage and prevent its commercialization?


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Much important thing here is India did not sit quite..Thanks to media which highlighted the issue and Thanks to Vijay Mallya who has also bought back Tippu sultans sword back to India..
Indian govt should proactively take actions to bring back all the looted ancient Indian literature and other articles in british museums and queens private library..

Posted by Anitha | Report as abusive

Probably Mahatma Gandhi would have disapproved paying 1.8 million to buy his personal belongings. He would have liked this amount to be spent on more purposeful and constructive work.

I found it funny that we are so possesive about Gandhiji’s belongings and pay scant regards to his principles.

Posted by chirkut | Report as abusive

Its meaningless to constitute commissions for reclaiming Gandhi’s possessions while we continue to ignore his principles.
Can the government imbibe some features of Gandhian philosophy rather than treasure hunting?

Posted by thetrajectory | Report as abusive

When I visited London Tower and British Museum, I was pained and shocked to see there, room after room filled with ancient indian treasures; it was clear that ship loads of loot were taken away from India. All these historical and religious treasures should be returned to the legitimate owners. This tiny Island nation piggybacking USA since WWII, has not received the respect it expected to recently with changes in Washington – with Obama administration hosting just a lukewarm reception when PM Brown called on white house last week.

India as a member nation brought down UK on its knees when Rajiv Gandhi administration threatened to pull out of commonwealth, this when Brits tried to show off and tried to snub India. So long as its connivance goes on unchallenged the Britain will prefer to play its larger than life s role. India should demand all its materials back rather than paying millions or billions to buy them back in auctions. Miiliband’s recent comments were over the top for a smaller democracy he represents, even though he expressed regret later. In a now changed world scenario as reality stands, India should be viewed as a legitimate world player much larger than Britain itself.

Posted by azaddp | Report as abusive

Gandhiji in his own lifetime upheld that the means were as important as the ends. By participating in the auction did the Indian government itself become a part of the commercialisation process?
I also dont understand this brouhaha over Gandhi’s possessions being national heritage etc. Isn’t he an international figure? How is it wrong for someone else to buy his belongings when it is correct for the Indian government to buy and keep them?
The only thing I have against private collections is that they make historical research difficult by making accesss to scholars an uphill task. I don’t see any thing of scholarly interest in the items that were up for sale.
And why should we bring back the so called Indian treasures back? The British were here for a couple of centuries. And culture knows no boundaries. India and many things Indian are a part of their heritage as well. For example the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. Let them keep it, they earned it.
Let us be more mindful of “our” heritage in India, say the immovable tombs and temples and buildings, which we neglect shamelessly.

Posted by vipul | Report as abusive

[…] 8 03 2009 I lost track of the auction of Gandhi’s personal items last week. There was a hullabaloo over the sale of the items and how to get the items back into […]

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Posted by India: A billion aspirations » Blog Archive » Gandhi memorabilia … | Report as abusive

Pardon me for raining on everybody’s parade,but weren’t these Gandhi’s personal possessions? And didn’t he GIVE them to different people? At that point they became the property of the individual to whom Gandhi gave them, not the the nation of India. The owners of these articles have the RIGHT to sell them if they wish. No nation has any right to steal someones personal possessions simply because they are historically significant. As far as the Govt of Great Britain having rooms full of Indian treasures, that may be a different story, depending on how they were acquired.

Posted by Tim Scheidler | Report as abusive

A liquor baron buys Gandhiji’s belongings. Gandhi was against consumption of liquor. What an irony it is!

Posted by reddy | Report as abusive

Tim Scheidler
@Pardon me for raining on everybody’s parade,but weren’t these Gandhi’s personal possessions?

@And didn’t he GIVE them to different people?
–In all likelihood the artciles were voluntarily given by MK Gandhi to these guys–so the guys must be those whom MKG liked and trusted. Trust is 2-way.

@At that point they became the property of the individual to whom Gandhi gave them,

@not the the nation of India.

@The owners of these articles have the RIGHT to sell them if they wish.
-Yes and NO. I will pick NO. RIGHT in CAPS says you see no problem since it is legally right to do so–Agreed. This is “out-of-the-court” kind of discussion, not so much what is legally right or wrong. It is about MKG’s “TRUST”’ in the owners of his articles. The persons should be thankful that they have earned his trust by auctioning they are breaking that. Do what MKG himself would do and I cannot imagine him auctioning his stuff to make money. Same goes for the owners of these articles, unless it is a life/death question, the owners should not be doing this to make money. It is much better to have these articles in a museum-from educational & research POV. MKG is from India—no doubt he is an International figure—so it makes sense to have the articles with India or atleast in any museum where everyone and the next generation can see and relate better with him. Decorating someone’s home is of no good use of these precious items.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

yea..someone reclaim the Kohinoor as well… Vijay Mallya..start bidding…

Posted by Sam | Report as abusive

let all those valuables in safehands there in abroad it self. if they are brought to India, for sure, they will be stolen in a month..

Posted by suresh | Report as abusive

Take a look at this link before the Indian govt blocks this site !! _mahal_a_vedic_temple.htm

Posted by Anitha | Report as abusive

I have a item for sale:

A house standing on a 2.5 acre property in Malabar Hills area on Bhausaheb Hirey Marg (Mount Pleasant Road) right in front of the official residence of Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

Previous owner was Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Shall we start the bidding at $15,000,000?

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive

I consider, that you commit an error. Let’s discuss it. Write to me in PM.

Posted by Hugo Klevjer | Report as abusive