On 4 and 5 March, Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles, a silver pocket watch and a few other possessions, including a pair of sandals and a bowl and plate, will go under the hammer in New York. Individually picked up by a collector, the items will be sold as a single lot by Antiquorum Auctioneers and are expected to fetch far more than their estimated price of $30,000. “This is a truly historic sale of Gandhi’s possessions,” Michelle Halpern of Antiquorum was quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph newspaper of the UK, which published the story on 11 February. According to the Telegraph, Gandhi gifted his sandals to a British army officer in 1931 prior to the Round Table talks in London. The glasses were gifted to an army colonel with the words: “These gave me the vision to free India.” And the Zenith pocket watch was given to his grand niece, Abha (in whose arms he died in 1948).
Condemnation of the auction followed swiftly, and Ramachandra Rahi, secretary of the Gandhi Memorial Foundation, told Indo-Asian News Service that it was a “lowly act” that was not “in consonance with Gandhiji’s values”. The political class also expressed disapproval. In a rare show of unity, politicians across party lines have asked for the items to be returned to India. The ministry of culture is reported to have already held an emergency meeting to decide on a course of action.
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Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy has asked the government to try and retrieve the “precious relics”. And Samajwadi Party member of Parliament Mohan Singh asked the government to prevent the auction altogether.
The planned sale brings to mind the controversy over Christie’s aborted London auction of Gandhiji’s last letters in June 2007. Back then, our politicians shed copious tears and the government stepped in to acquire the letters for a sum of money that has not been disclosed.
Without a doubt, anything associated with Mahatma Gandhi has a unique sentimental and symbolic value for the people of this country, particularly to the younger generation for whom Gandhi is a text-book figure. Places associated with Gandhi—his samadhi at Raj Ghat or his memorial at Tees January Marg—continue to attract large numbers of visitors. His possessions, in particular, have a special aura because he had so few of them. To call them national treasures is an understatement.
Yet, amid the clamour from politicians to have the items returned to India, or to even have the auction stopped, I couldn’t stop myself from asking one discordant question: What does Gandhi really mean to us? Beyond the material possession of his sandals or watch or spectacles, do our politicians really follow his message or his philosophy?
As if to drive the point home, in the week that the auction debate was brewing, our representatives were showing off their skills at disruption and destruction. In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, members of the Samajwadi Party busied themselves throwing paper balls at governor T.V. Rajeshwar.
In Andhra Pradesh, former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party members, along with their Telengana and Left comrades, had to be physically removed by house marshals when they disrupted assembly proceedings to protest the chief minister’s alleged role in the scam at Satyam Computer Services Ltd. And in Orissa, Congress members clambered atop the Speaker’s desk to protest against chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
Sixty-one years after his death, you have to ask if our ruling elite has, lip service apart, abandoned Gandhi altogether. In an article in Mint’s Lounge (31 January), historian Ramachandra Guha questioned the relevance of Gandhi. Some of his ideas (on food, on celibacy), he noted, were simply irrelevant. But there had been an abandonment of many of his other principles, despite the fact that many of them (sustainable development, for one) remain current.
The abandonment of Gandhi’s ideals is perhaps most evident when you look at the prevailing corruption which is now endemic across all classes, nowhere more apparent than in our political class. Civil dialogue has broken down into simplistic black and white boundaries: Should we celebrate Valentine’s Day or not? And respect for all religions is now reduced to a theoretical notion. In his own state of Gujarat—present-day Hindutva’s laboratory—Gandhi’s vision has been reduced to nothing. What’s more, chief minister Narendra Modi has just received a resounding endorsement as India’s future prime minister from some of India’s most senior captains of industry, including Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal.
Gandhi’s life and teachings go beyond our national boundaries to the realm of global discourse. Earlier this week, Martin Luther King Jr’s grandson visited Raj Ghat to pay tribute to the man who inspired in no small measure the civil rights movement.
To understand the message of Gandhi, we need to look beyond his material possessions. It would be a fine thing if we brought his spectacles, his sandals, his pocket watch and his bowl and plate back home. But it would be meaningless to do so without remembering what he really stood for.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to email@example.com