Last-minute efforts on to stop Gandhi memorabilia auction (Roundup)

March 6th, 2009 - 12:18 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghNew York/New Delhi, March 5 (IANS) With the clock ticking away ahead of an auction in New York of several items used by Mahatma Gandhi, Indian officials held talks with the seller while the government said it will “make all efforts possible” to acquire these memorabilia.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Thursday 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 was scheduled to start at 1.30 a.m. Friday India time. The collection has a reserve price of between $20,000 and $30,000.

James Otis, a US-based collector of Gandhi memorabilia, offered to withdraw the items from the auction, provided the Indian government agreed to either increase government spending on the poor or to create an international travelling exhibit about Gandhi.

Otis sent a three-page proposal after a meeting the Indian consul general in New York, Prabhu Dayal Wednesday. They also met again Thursday morning.

“They were very positive about the exhibition,” Otis was quoted as saying by the New York Times. He said he hoped the two sides could reach an agreement before Thursday afternoon (early Friday India time), when the items are set to be sold by Antiquorum Auctioneers, a Manhattan auction house.

However, Dayal cautioned: “Any meaningful discussion is not possible in this atmosphere when the auction is to take place tomorrow and there is an attempt to rush things in this manner.”

“We are very open-minded on this matter,” Dayal said. However, he noted: “I have no power to agree to whatever he demands. I can at best convey whatever proposal he has.”

Otis and a colleague, Lester Kurtz, a professor at George Mason University who also has a collection of Gandhi memorabilia, said they spent two hours Thursday morning with Dayal, and several other Indian diplomats in a meeting.

Otis said at times the meeting in New York turned tense. “They started threatening me with a court order, that I might be a fugitive if this went through,” he said. However, the two sides eventually reached their tentative agreement on a way to end the auction.

Kurtz told the Times that the two of them envisioned “a series of events around Gandhi’s legacy that would include artefacts and photographs” as well as other information about major figures in non-violence.

Kurtz said that potentially he would also lend some of his Gandhi items, which he has not yet publicly disclosed are in his possession: blood from Gandhi from the assassination and ashes from the cremation. He said those items were given to him by another Gandhi collector a few years back.

According to Otis, Indian 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 they 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.

In New Delhi, Culture Minister Ambika Soni told reporters: “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.

She said External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had already issued instructions and the Indian embassy in Washington was in touch with the auctioneers.

“All we are doing are the direct instruction of the prime minister. He said in no ambiguous terms - negotiate, discuss, do whatever needs to be done. The bottom line is we have to procure them for the nation, for India where we feel it rightly belongs,” 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-based 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 TV channel.

An external affairs ministry spokesperson said later in the evening: “The government does not want to commercialise and thereby demean the memory of the Father of the Nation and everything that he stood for in his life, beliefs and actions.

“(The) government is continuing to make all efforts possible to ensure that the belongings are restored to their rightful owners, the Navjivan Trust, to whom the Father of the Nation had willed his movable and immovable personal belongings,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, 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 if the auction takes place.

“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 auction house to respect the 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.

Mahatma Gandhi’s silver Zenith pocket watch (circa 1910-1915) is expected to attract significant interest. The pocket watch belonged to Gandhi, who later gave it to his grandniece Abha Gandhi, his assistant of six years, and in whose arms he died.

Also offered as part of the same lot are Gandhi’s sandals, glasses, bowl, plate and letters of authenticity.

The sandals were given to a British army officer in 1931 prior to the Round Table talks in London that were held to discuss self-rule for India. The bowl and plate were given by Gandhi to his grandniece are also for sale.

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