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In letter and spirit

India has earlier retrieved the Mahatma’s papers from an auction house on the basis of his will, writes LM Singhvi.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2007 00:40 IST
LM Singhvi
LM Singhvi
Hindustan Times

There are those who hold the view that India should not bother to bid for the editorial note that Mahatma Gandhi wrote for the Harijan 19 days before his tragic assassination. There are many, however, who regard it as part of the country’s precious heritage and feel we must get the document back.

Gandhi’s papers are generally considered the property of the Navjeevan Trust. This claim is based on the duly probated will of Mahatma Gandhi, certified copies of which must by now have gathered excessive dust in the archives of India’s High Commission in London, where I left them when I demitted office.

It was on the basis of Gandhi’s will and its probate that we succeeded in preventing the auction of a large collection of Gandhi papers by Phillips, a highly specialised and reputed vintage British company. In the event, we were able to force them to surrender the papers to us. Those papers, valued at several million dollars, are now safely lodged in Nehru Memorial Museum. And let it be noted, they were brought to India at no cost to the exchequer since the auction house and Swami Sivaya of Hawaii Temple, who’d entrusted the papers to the former for auction, had no title to the documents.

V Kalyanam, a typist working with Gandhi, had simply walked away with a suitcase full of Gandhi letters and papers in manuscript form after his assassination. Kalyanam gave those immensely valuable papers to Swami Sivaya, a Shaivite sanyasi of American origin. We do not know the details of the deal they struck.

I took the view that this was stolen property and Kalyanam could not pass title of property he had stolen. I hold the same view about Gandhi’s editorial note of January 11, 1948. Faced with the auction of a large collection of Gandhi’s papers by Phillips, I was forced to track the will of Mahatma Gandhi and its probate. I then caused a case to be filed against Kalyanam in Chennai. Thanks to my friend, N. Ram of The Hindu, we did track down Kalyanam, who was, however, adamant and unyielding.

We also caused a notice to be served on the auction house to cancel the auction and not to remove the property from the jurisdiction of the London courts. In view of Kalyanam’s admissions and his declaration of intent to continue doing what he had been doing, the government was within its right to start criminal proceedings against him.

On that occasion, The Guardian published a special supplement on the Indian claim. The British MPs and the media supported the Indian High Commission. The fear of law and the fear of God (in that order) finally brought the auction house to heel. Its representatives asked for a meeting with me in the High Commission. They came with a battery of their lawyers and directors. I was my own lawyer, except that I had my friend, the senior retired Law Lord, The Lord Templeman, sitting by my side. His presence visibly shook them and demoralised them.

The auction house wanted to avoid a suit for heavy damages and injunction. They were at pains to explain that they had made the deal in good faith but had made an honest error in law. We settled the issue amicably but the hitch was that the papers were entrusted to the auction house by Swami Sivaya, who, too, had to agree.

I wrote to him that he should consent to the settlement because a Hindu temple ought never to be built on the immoral foundation of stolen property. I also told the good Swami that he had unwittingly become party to the theft and fraud perpetrated by Kalyanam. The Swami’s sincere contrition and repentance moved me deeply.

Finally all the papers with a valuable book of annotations prepared by the auction house came to us free of cost.Indeed, the auction house paid a token notional cost to us. I had the honour to present the precious papers to the nation through the then President of India.

In the auction of Mahatma Gandhi’s editorial note of January 11, which has now been deferred, the question of title is crucial. Otherwise we would be buying our own property, property that belongs to the Harijan or Navjeevan Trust. How the letter came into the possession of the private Swiss collector and on what basis he or she claims ownership of the title is a mystery that remains to be unravelled. My caveat to other potential foreign buyers is caveat emptor, for they may be buying stolen property without any title.

LM Singhvi is a jurist and parliamentarian. He was India’s former High Commissioner to Britain

First Published: Jul 03, 2007 00:35 IST