Thursday, 14 October 2010
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An Eye for an Eye Makes the World Blind
March 23, 2009

The auction of Gandhi's possessions creates conflict, running counter to the spirit of the late man.


In recent memory, save for the film “Slumdog Millionaire”, there hasn’t been an issue that has raised the ire of the Indian intelligentsia more than that of the auctioning of Gandhi’s belongings.

It isn’t difficult to understand the outrage in the Indian community over this once one gets a perspective of what Gandhi means for most Indians.

The father of the nation who helped give India its independence, he lifted it out of its bondage to the British; he instilled a sense of hope, courage, pride and nationalism in the country that even decades later still rings in every strata of Indian society. It is hard to escape Gandhi in India; he is everywhere, from being printed on rupee notes to being used as an advertising icon. Gandhi is sacrosanct; Gandhi IS India. Thus the sheer audacity of one person auctioning off some of his belongings is nothing short of an act of war.

The auction begs several questions though. One can’t help but wonder about the rightful ownership and authenticity of the objects, the integrity of the seller James Otis and the auction house, and the motives behind the Indian government’s uproar and buyer Vijay Malliya’s generosity.

As an apolitical layperson such as myself ponders upon it, I am left thinking: surely the Indian government has the right, if not the moral responsibility, to acquire the said objects, in the interest of preserving the legacy of one if its greatest sons? After all, they have spent millions of dollars on naming and renaming city streets and institutions after the man, and erecting statues of him. So what if the manner they chose to do this is by declaring the sale illegal?

Certainly Vijay Malliya, too, deserves the kudos bestowed upon him by various organizations for his valiant purchase. Even if he has yet to put it in writing that the objects will be donated to an Indian museum or public institution, I do not doubt his philanthropy.

James Otis’s take of a moral high ground on returning the objects to India and scrapping the auction – only if India spends more money on health care or promotes Gandhi’s principles in 72 countries (one for every year of his life) – must be applauded, even if it reeks of emotional blackmail. (By the way he now wants the objects back.)

Yet what this circus has evoked in me is what would have Gandhi thought of all this?

Here was a man who in his will has clearly stated “I do not believe that I have any property”.

Gandhi was a man who would have gladly given up anything but his principles. His infamy not only stems from his deeds but also his frugality. As India and Indians proudly claim rightful ownership of every bit of Gandhi memorabilia, it seems a misguided attempt to capture the man’s essence through his possessions. Besides, India already has several of those (at display at the Gandhi memorial in Delhi ).

As a non-resident Indian, I never did grow up with Gandhian ideologies, or know much of Gandhi, save what I learnt from the film Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, supplemented by random internet searches teaching me a few facts not portrayed in the film.

I guess the sale of Gandhi’s belongings doesn’t mean as much to me as it does to the rest of the billion. I am not sure I could live his philosophy or even attempt to. Would I have agreed with his principles? Could we be friends?

I can, on some Indian level, empathise with the rest of the community, though I can’t yet purport to understand the issues at stake. Why? Perhaps because I have a different vision of Gandhi, one of benevolence in all his acts and the rigidity of his principles.

I can’t believe he would have condoned the current farce. I can just imagine Gandhi getting a good giggle out of this.

Indeed Gandhi’s legacy needs to be preserved. It would be better served if the Indian government really made strides in Indian health care; if resources and time were better spent on educating the masses as per Gandhi’s wishes; if the Indian government and Indians stood up, embraced and be empowered by his philosophy and finally put it into action.

Since the government has shown such vehement opposition to the sale, perhaps it needs to boost its efforts to protect its antiquities and improve the conditions of its current museums and heritage sites.

Little has been done to spread, let alone adhere to, Gandhi’s “ahimsa” non-violence philosophy. The attempts by Bollywood film “Muna Bhai”, while paying homage to the man and quite effectively lifting his profile, fell sharply short in instilling his values in the viewers.

Gandhian ideology could also have been better served, had Otis merely donated the items to India or at least the proceeds from the sale. Malliya, in true Gandhian spirit, might also have not participated in the auction but donated the money to the needy instead.

I don’t doubt their noble intentions; I do have reservations that Gandhi would have approved.

The debacle is seeped in ironies: a liquor baron procuring Gandhi’s legacy (the late leader was a staunch opponent of alcohol); of a nation that is in constant sabre-rattling with its neighbour, the very neighbour that, if Gandhi had his way, would still be part of greater India; of a man who proposes to further Gandhi’s principles by holding hostage his belongings.

Clearly, the sale of the Gandhi items has inflamed too many passions and bruised too many egos; which makes me wonder, what would the great man himself have thought?

I would like to believe that he would have thought that India, while protecting its heritage, now needs to create its own new legacies.

As much as Gandhi was Indian, India perhaps should try to be Gandhi, rather than just preserving a few artefacts.

All this comes down to is either much ado about nothing, or a case of an eye for an eye, making the whole world blind.


Photo source:


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