There’s just a few days left to go before a rare collection of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal effects—including his pocket watch, spectacles, sandals, bowl and thali—comes up for auction in New York. But the Indian government has yet to instruct its representatives in the US to bid for the precious memorabilia. And despite the fact that Gandhi’s letters and articles have come under the hammer several times before—most recently at auctions by Christie’s and Sotheby’s in 1993, 1998 and 2007—the government has still to announce a policy on acquiring objects of "national heritage" status that periodically grace auctions abroad.
The government’s response to such situations in the past has been ad hoc, admits Lov Verma, joint secretary at the ministry of culture, and one of its solutions had been to "encourage NRIs who wanted to bid for the objects to return them to India". Sir Gulam Noon, the London-based "curry king", was one NRI who played a part in two such auctions. In 1993, he and Lord Raj Bagri, the former chairman of the London Metal Exchange, acquired a set of Gandhi documents for £14,000. In 1998 Noon and another wealthy NRI, Nat Puri, bought up a collection of 18 letters written by Gandhi between 1918-24 to Maulana Abdul Bari, the founder of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, for £21,172. On both occasions the memorabilia were returned to India, in the second case being formally presented to President K.R. Narayanan in 1999.