India may bid for Mahatma Gandhi's memorabilia

With just a few hours left before some of Mahatma Gandhi's memorabilia go under the hammer in New York, India said it would do everything - even make a bid at auction - to get these back.

india Updated: Mar 05, 2009 21:27 IST

With just a few hours left before some of Mahatma Gandhi's memorabilia go under the hammer in New York, India on Thursday said it would do everything - even make a bid at auction - to get these back.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has asked the embassy in the US and officials in India to do everything needed to get back the articles - a Zenith pocket watch, steel-rimmed spectacles, a pair of sandals and an eating bowl and plate used by Mahatma Gandhi.

The auction by Antiquorum Auctioneers is scheduled to start at 1.30 am on Friday (India time). The collection has a reserve price of between $20,000 and $30,000.

Culture Minister Ambika Soni told reporters in New Delhi, "We have to get Mahatma Gandhi's belongings back and are looking at all options. We will enter the auction if required as a last resort to bring back the items to the country."

"The prime minister has directed me to do whatever possible... the bottomline is to procure the memorabilia," Soni said.

Her comments came even as Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma said the Government would not enter into agreements or accept conditions on the articles and appealed to US collector James Otis to withdraw from sale the Gandhi relics.

"We appeal to the good sense of James Otis to withdraw these items from the auction," Sharma told a television channel.

Otis had offered to withdraw the articles from sale if India agreed to either spend more on healthcare for the poor or support educational events to promote non-violent resistance.

The letter from Otis came after a meeting with India's Consul General in New York Prabhu Dayal on Wednesday. Otis has agreed to meet Indian officials again on Thursday before the items go on sale.

"We have offered to them that even if they did not want to donate the items, we could purchase the items on the behalf of the government of India," Prabhu Dayal was quoted as saying.

As a back-up plan, a group of NRI hoteliers led by Sant Singh Chatwal plans to bid for the items on behalf of the Indian government.

"The only aim is to buy them so that no one else can buy them," Chatwal said. "The idea is to have any Indian buy" the belongings of the Father of the Nation and ship the items back home.

The consulate in New York is also said to be ready to approach a New York court with a Delhi High Court order that has stayed the auction.

The Indian consulate said it had requested the New York auction house Antiquorum Auctioneers to respect a Delhi High Court order staying the planned auction. The court had passed the restraint order in response to a petition filed by the Navjivan Trust, the legal heir of Mahatma Gandhi.

According to Otis, the authorities should 'substantially increase the proportion of the Indian government budget spent on healthcare for the poor to shift priorities from military spending to the healthcare of the Indian people, specifically the poor'.

Or it should 'provide financial support and the good offices of Indian embassies and consulates, as well as other contacts in the Indian community, to support educational events that use the Gandhi items to promote Gandhian non-violent resistance in 78 countries around the world, one for each of the number of years Gandhiji graced us with his life on the planet'.

They would, he said, 'bring together concerned citizens, non-violent activists, civic and government leaders to grapple with the meaning of Gandhi's message for today's world'.

"The shining example of the Indian freedom movement could help to light the path toward a better future on the planet."

Otis 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.

The National Gandhi Museum director in New Delhi Varsha Das said on Thursday: "If there is a commercial motive behind selling the items, then it is wrong."

"Instead, if somebody wants to use them to open a museum overseas, it may well be the medium to inspire and spread Gandhiji's teachings," she said, in her office in the second floor of the museum that stands diagonally opposite Rajghat, where the apostle of non-violence was cremated.

And that's how she also looks at the relics under her care too - as a 'medium' to spread the Gandhian message.

A man who lived a life of simplicity, Gandhi frequently gave away his possessions. "There are so many things he had given and letters that he had written that it will be impractical to collect all the originals. People will then start exploiting this," Das told IANS.

First Published: Mar 05, 2009 21:22 IST