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India's attempt to stop Gandhi auction rejected

The Delhi High Court orders a halt to the sale in New York and the government offers to pay a 'reasonable negotiated price' for Gandhi's belongings, but the seller is unmoved.

March 05, 2009|Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — India has made a last-minute attempt to halt the sale of Mohandas Gandhi memorabilia scheduled for today in New York, arguing that they are part of the nation's heritage. But auctioneers are moving ahead and say the controversy could result in record prices.

The items, owned by James Otis, a Los Angeles-based pacifist and documentary filmmaker, include Gandhi's 1910 Zenith pocket watch, steel-rimmed eyeglasses, sandals, and brass bowl and plate.

Tushar Gandhi, Gandhi's great-grandson, has led the campaign to return the items to India and called the auction "reprehensible." He has tried to raise money to buy the collection.

Gandhi, who pioneered the philosophy of modern nonviolent resistance during his struggle to free India from 200 years of British rule, was assassinated Jan. 30, 1948, in New Delhi by a Hindu radical.

The reserve price for his belongings at the Antiquorum auction house is $20,000 to $30,000, although some predict the collection could sell for 10 times as much.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Julian Schaerer, Antiquorum's watch expert and auctioneer. "Of course, as is always the case with news, when people talk about it, it generates more interest."

The Delhi High Court this week ordered a halt to the auction, although it's not clear what jurisdiction it has over commercial activities in New York and it did not give a public explanation for its actions.

Attorneys for the Navajivan Trust, which was founded by Gandhi and filed the lawsuit heard by the court, had argued that the items' status as a national heritage superseded the issue of jurisdiction.

Zia Mody, an international lawyer based in Mumbai, India, said the government's logic may be of a decidedly different sort, namely political.

"Given that we're in election mode, it would be something if they didn't try," she said, referring to national elections in April and May. "I suspect the U.S. court will have a much more cut-and-dried approach."

In fact, U.S. courts are not expected to hear the case, but the outcry has put pressure on India's Foreign Ministry to stop the sale through diplomacy. "We're sensitizing the U.S. government," said Anand Sharma, minister of state in the External Affairs Ministry.

Otis, who bought the items from the Gandhi family or at auctions, said he chose to sell them now in part because he hoped publicity surrounding the sale would inspire the Obama administration and others to pursue nonviolence.

The collector added that officials at the Indian Consulate in New York threatened to seek a court order for his arrest, give his name to Interpol or bar him from visiting India if he proceeded with the auction. "The implication was if I went [to India] I would be thrown in jail," he said. "I'm following Gandhi's footsteps."

Otis, who has pledged to give most of the proceeds to groups espousing nonviolence, said he was willing to entertain a last-minute cancellation if India agreed to a fivefold increase in domestic healthcare funding or sponsoring a worldwide tour of memorabilia associated with the nonviolence movement.

Sharma countered that India had sharply increased health funding and pushed for an international nonviolence day.

The government said in a statement that it repeatedly asked the auction house to cancel the event, and that it was willing to pay the minimum bid or a "reasonable negotiated price."

Schaerer, the auctioneer, said Gandhi's watch had an unusual alarm function but otherwise wasn't particularly rare. "He was very punctual, very worried about time," he said.

According to the catalog, Gandhi gave the items to his grand-niece, Abha Gandhi, who willed them to her daughter Gita Mehta. Some Indians blamed Gandhi's family for the controversy.

"Gandhi-ji's family didn't safeguard his belongings. It's their fault," said Anil Sood, 50, owner of an art gallery in New Delhi, using an expression of respect to refer to Gandhi. He "sacrificed everything for our country; it's wrong to sell his belongings."

In fact, Gandhi agreed to sell some of his personal effects during his lifetime to raise money for causes he supported.

The response to Tushar Gandhi's appeal for government and private funds has been underwhelming. As of late February, the head of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Mumbai had received slightly more than $3,000 in pledges.

Varsha Das, director of the National Gandhi Museum in Delhi, said it was important to take a more philosophical approach. Instead of trying to block the auction, she said, the focus should be on spreading Gandhi's views and values.

"Many people feel sentimental and want his things to come back to India," she said. "But I feel Gandhi is for the whole world. We should not insist on getting it back for India."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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